FOR MORE THAN two decades, Rose-Ann Foster-Vaughan has been one of the strongest advocates for equal treatment of people with disabilities.
It has been her cause over the 25 years since she joined and started working with organisations that work with the disabled. As administrative project officer with the Barbados Council for the Disabled (BCD) for roughly half of that time, she takes the lead on most of the organisation’s projects and lobbying efforts.
After living what she called a fairly normal life growing up, Foster-Vaughan, who has cerebral palsy, said that when she left school she was introduced to the Barbados National Organisation of the Disabled (BARNOD).
“Before I came into the movement I did not fully understand what people with disabilities had to go through because I was educated in the able-bodied schools,” she said.
“I did not go to special schools and I came from a very supportive and enabling family. I had two very strong women, my mother and sister, and they always taught me that Rose-Ann you can do anything you want and to hell with anybody else who thinks otherwise.”
It was against that backdrop that she got involved in the disability rights movement. Foster-Vaughan’s participation has helped her achieve some of her dreams. She was trained in administrative duties, thanks to BARNOD, and worked for a while with the national entity until she was offered full employment with the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) in its accounts department for eight years.
“When I first went with them [BWU], I was temping for someone, and I got the impression that they did not want to give me much to do,” she said.
“When persons with disabilities go into the course of open employment there is always hesitation. Can this persons do the job? How are the other employees going to interact with this person? But luckily for me, Sir Roy Trotman (then general secretary) said right away, ‘Let her do everything that the others are doing, expose her, let her find her way’.” As a result, she worked across the whole spectrum of the union.
She decided to move on so she could work in a capacity where she could actively do more to help the disabled community. Since then she has been with the BCD.
Foster-Vaughan said that her attendance at a regular school has given her a certain measure of independence and she was never afraid to take risks. Even though at school children made fun of her it never got to her, she said. Also she was always determined to have her personality shine through so that others are always forced to look at her as an individual, rather than focus on her disability.
“When I get you to see me then you realise that this is an intelligent person you are talking to, not some giddy-headed, foolish girl,” she said. “People always have their perception. Once they see a physical disability they figure that your brain is disabled too but their brains work just fine.”
Speaking of her personal situation, Foster-Vaughan said she was born in the breech position. It led to oxygen being cut off and as a result she lost some mobility due to cerebral palsy and spent several days in hospital. Her mother said she knew something was wrong from the first time she looked at her daughter, even though the doctors did not recognise anything.
Mum embraced the journey, sent Foster-Vaughan to a regular school and she played with the children in the neighbourhood, pitched marbles and was a very active child.
Her 12 years at the BCD have seen her look after all of its projects, one of the most recognised of which is the flagship Disability Sensitivity Training Workshop, a partnership with the Ministry of Labour “to let employers and their employees know that we are ordinary citizens”.
There is also another project that is near and dear to her heart, the Sexual and Reproductive Health Programme for people with disabilities that started in 2008. She said she attended a forum hosted by the United Nations on youth and their vulnerabilities, but there was no talk about the disabled, so she had to rise to her feet and bring it to their attention that although they were talking about teenagers, gays and lesbians, it was the disabled who happened to be the most vulnerable.
The UN therefore took on the challenge of helping the BCD to get a project in place catering to the disabled, and she even spearheaded a team that went to Jamaica to see its programme in action and to set up one that suited the Barbadian situation.
Foster-Vaughan said participants not only get a better understanding of how their bodies work, but also learn about guarding their bodies against predators that may see them as easy targets.
When the programme was up and running, officials did learn of a few cases of abuse, some involving family members, she said.
Foster-Vaughan said that over the years there had been some improvements in the way others treated people with disabilities, but there was still a lot more work to be done. She said some people were still ashamed to let others know that they have a disabled person in the household. Consequently, she said, there was not a full count of the population of people with disabilities. She said right now the recorded number was about 14 000, but the actual figure was likely higher.
She called for more Barbadians to embrace disability rights. “More hands make lighter work, more voices singing from the same hymn sheet are heard,” she said.