Reaching the 'cocobai': Reconstruction and persons with disabilities in Haiti

Reaching the 'cocobai': Reconstruction and persons with disabilities in Haiti

Policy Paper January 2011 FOCAL

In Haiti, Handicap International estimated that 800,000 people were living with disabilities before the Jan. 12,
2010 earthquake; they were among the poorest in the country. With the quake, the number of people with
disabilities has increased dramatically, putting an even greater strain on an already weak infrastructure. Many
newly-disabled children have also lost their parents and their homes, and the disabled previously congested
in Port-au-Prince have shifted into outlying regions where services are scarce. The situation is compounded by
prevalent myths about disability that erect strong barriers to assistance for persons with disabilities —who are
called “cocobai” in slang Creole, implying they are worthless.
Rebuilding efforts offer a unique opportunity to incorporate a focus on disability issues. Haiti’s 10-year
Action Plan for the Reconstruction and National Development of Haiti is mainly directed toward environmental
sustainability and infrastructure development. Nonetheless, many of its sections are of relevance to persons
with disabilities. Yet, only the section on health directly references persons with newly-acquired physical
disabilities, and elsewhere disability is incorporated into the broader vulnerable groups category. Most
importantly, the needs of persons with other disabilities such as epilepsy, autism, cognitive disability, mental
health issues, visual or hearing impairment, who have been equally affected by the quake, remain invisible.

  1. Mainstreaming: Applying a disability lens to all rebuilding policies is key to avoid omitting this group. It would be sound to include the Secretariat of State for the Inclusion of People with Disabilities in all aspects of the rebuilding process.
  2. Health: The integration of mental health services into primary care could be prioritized. The initiative to set up antenna clinics in rural areas to address the complex needs of persons with various disabilities and offer support to their families is promising in that regard.
  3. Justice: Existing and new members of the police force would benefit from sensitivity training on different types of disabilities to ensure that the human rights of persons with disabilities are not violated.
  4. Education: Haitian schools can provide more inclusive education for children with disabilities and implement preventive health strategies. Public education campaigns could also be mounted to challenge stigma surrounding disability.
  5. Employment: Efforts to equalize opportunities for training and placement for the unemployed could also include measures for adults with disabilities, including adults with non-physical disabilities.
  6. Public buildings: In reconstructing public buildings, it would be more cost-effective to integrate an architectural design sensitive to access issues for the disabled in the first stages of construction than to renovate buildings later.