Let me start by thanking Ms Patricia Padmore-Blackman for opening the space for me to share this event with you. Let me also put Ms Padmore-Blackman on notice that she will have me to contend with until the Subcommittee of Visually Impaired Women of the Barbados Association for the Blind and Deaf is a full member of the National Organization of Women of Barbados. Because that is what the next 25 years looks like!
That is the meaning in deed of the theme that we have come here to contemplate – Reaching Higher: Beyond 25 Years – as we celebrate the achievements of the Subcommittee of Visually Impaired Women of the Barbados Association for the Blind and Deaf. Let me make a few more introductory remarks before I return to the idea of reaching higher and sharing my thoughts on what that could look like and why it absolutely must involve the Sub-committee coming under the NOW umbrella.
It is a very worthwhile and important activity to remember pioneers and to give them accolades while they are around to hear that they were appreciated and revered for the contribution they made. In that context, this activity that we are gathered here for is substantial.
The Barbados Association for the Blind and Deaf was started in 1957 by an Act of Parliament. It was not until some 37 years later that discussions led to the formation of a female arm of the larger association. Alinda Brathwaite, one of the woman pioneers that we are gathered here to celebrate today, attended a meeting of the Caribbean Council for the Blind and Deaf, at which issues specific to visually impaired women took a major segment of the proceedings.
The concrete suggestion coming out of the conference was that the various territories represented should start female spaces in the various associations so that the gendered issues could be managed. Twenty-five years later, Barbados stands as the only territory with a continuing presence in the national association for women. That is heavyweight stuff! And it is to be vigorously applauded.
This activity to call the names of the early pioneers and to validate their effort is a significant, worthwhile and worthy one. I regret to say, though, that it is only one activity in what should be a series of things that are done. We usually hold the ceremonies and we distribute the awards – as I said very important and worthwhile activity – but in many ways it is not the most important action.
The most important activity is historicizing the work of the pioneers and ensuring that there are user-friendly ways of disseminating the information. Where can I buy the history of the Blind and Deaf Association of Barbados? More importantly, who will write the chapter on the formation of the sub-committee for women? If I yet cannot purchase this history then Ms Padmore-Blackman, we have yet another urgent project to discuss.
Reaching higher beyond 25 years necessitates that we can keep ourselves and our potential clients invested and excited about the work that we have done and hope to do on their behalf. Women in the sub-committee must know the names of Alinda Brathwaite, Marva Hinkson, Shirley Cadogan, Barry Belle and Juanita Paul Gibbs. Remember that as we are gathered here today, there will be a child who is either born as a member of this community or will become a member of this community.
While we hope that the stalwarts are still going to be here for them to meet in person in another 25 years, we are not sure and I do not think we can take the chance. Marva and Shirley have already eternally departed. So the case is made. We have to ensure that there are adequate markers of the pioneers so that longevity is brought to their efforts and contributions. Writing history is a must!
So with that plea made, let me now turn my attention to reaching higher and moving beyond 25 years. Differently abled people in Barbados have used the last 25 years diligently and there have been significant gains overall – I think – in the way that we view people with varying abilities.
I am not, by far, suggesting that more cannot be done or that we live in nirvana – the high sidewalks in Bridgetown and the lack of places for babies and children with additional needs in the educational sector is testimony that we still have work cut out.
But at the same time, we cannot ignore that there have been gains. In 1994, when the sub-committee for women of the Blind and Deaf Association was formed, Eudalie Wickham was about five years into her involvement with advocacy for the differently abled and was becoming a recognizable name on the topic. Kregg Nurse shattered the access barrier to tertiary education, graduating from the University of the West Indies with an honours degree in 1997. Two years later, Kerry Ann Ifill would repeat, and move on to become a senator, Deputy President of the Senate and then by 2012, the first female and person with different ability to be the President of the Senate in Barbados.
Much has changed in terms of the boundaries hindering the differently abled in the 25 years under review. In fact, so much has changed that some may even be tempted to ask, in the typical Barbadian way, “What more them could want now? What more them expect?”
That is a cry that we often hear as we continue the work around women and girls advocacy on the island. My response to the comment is simple – we have to remember that although our pioneers continue to open doors and shatter ceilings, the movement and the needs of the people served by the movement cannot be measured by the experiences of the standard bearers.
There are significant differences between the life of the first female Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley and the little girl living in the back of the airport on squatter land and who is visually impaired. There are significant differences between a visually impaired woman who has broken all barriers and become the President of the Senate and one who has to go into the shelter for battered women because her partner tried to set her family house on fire to kill her after ‘a done’.
Even as we meet here today to lift up our pioneers, we recognize the need for the continued fight because there are many other women, both in the visually and hearing impaired community and generally, that need our effort and help. My vision of reaching higher and moving beyond the gains of the last 25 years will require each of us to look inside ourselves and to be honest about our own privileges and biases.
Speech from Marsha Hinds at the 25th anniversary of the Subcommittee for Women of the Barbados Association for the Blind and Deaf.