Dozens of people – some blind, some deaf, some using wheelchairs – made their way through Cruz Bay Wednesday chanting, “We are abled, not disabled!” as part of White Cane Safety Day.
The event is part of a national movement that began in 1964 to bring awareness to local communities about the lack of access affecting people with disabilities.
Although Wednesday’s march was the first time the event was held on St. John, annual marches have been held for years on St. Thomas, St. Croix and even Water Island, according to event organizer Felecia Brownlow, program director of the V.I. Association for Independent Living.
On St. John, as in other locations, organizers invited community members to put on a blindfold and be guided through town to experience what it’s like to try to get around without the power of sight.
One St. Johnian who accepted the offer was Patrice Harley.
“It was quite challenging, even though I know St. John,” she said.
“Her biggest challenge was letting go and trusting someone,” said Shauna Lynch, who guided her throughout the walk.
“I wanted to take off my blindfold,” said Sen. Steven Payne Sr. after completing his walk. “It was just a few minutes in what could be a life of visual impairment. My ears tuned in – I could hear the music from Tap and Still, a generator, things I didn’t usually pay attention to. We need much better sidewalks, and intersections where you can press a button and traffic will stop, and you’ll hear an alarm.”
There are only two intersections with alarms for the blind on St. Thomas and none on St. John, according to Brownlow, although there are almost 80 blind or low-sighted people on St. Thomas who use her agency’s services.
“That’s a conservative number. There are others with low vision or no vision who don’t come to our centers,” she said.
Leading the march was Julien Henley, who now serves as the coordinator for the Americans with Disabilities Act at Government House on St. Thomas.
“We want to be inclusive. We’re happy to be on St. John and show that people with disabilities should be part of the community,” Henley said. “If it’s inaccessible, it’s not acceptable.”
Henley used a bullhorn to lead the chant while operating his wheelchair. As he started up the hill past the Julius E. Sprauve School toward the roundabout, Edithrose Jennings stepped up behind him to give him a push.
“I’ve got turbo,” he said with a laugh.
When they reached a section near a car rental company where cars blocked the sidewalk, the chant became, “A sidewalk is for walking, not for parking!”
Jennings, who serves on the board of the Association of Independent Living, said the agency does what it can to get clients out of the house.
“These folks have strong minds, even if they’re deaf or blind.” She said the center holds meetings with guest speakers or activities every Wednesday, including trips to the bowling alley, restaurants and museums.
“It’s a mash-up of people with disabilities who get together to have a good day. We offer door-to-door pick up and return service.”
Jennings said businesses need to know that they can qualify for a tax break to offset the costs of making their establishments accessible if they add a ramp, railing or elevator.
Jim Kerr, formerly a teacher at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, was one of the participants in the march on Wednesday. Now blind, Kerr said losing one’s sight “drives you to a deeper understanding.
“We’re not disabled; we’re challenged.”