“Everyone in a society, including those with disabilities, has a role to play in its development and sustainability.”
This is the view of 27-year-old Janeil Odle, a visually impaired attorney-at-law who has been making her contribution to society over the last few years.
Odle told Barbados TODAY about her life-changing experience at the age of six, which she did not allow to restrict her from leading what many would consider a normal life.
“When I was six years old, I fell off my bicycle and hit my head, which resulted in a blood clot to my brain that ultimately made me lose my eyesight. However, I was told that despite the emotional trauma and stress this incident caused my family, I showed no such discomfort. In fact, I was the same happy go lucky child I was prior to the accident, and I didn’t quite understand why people seemed to be treating me differently,” she recalled.
“One thing that did concern me, though, is that my friends seemed to have deserted me, and I had to change schools. I ended up going to the Irving Wilson School but I found I didn’t really fit in there because that school caters for children between the ages of three and 18, and at six years old, the majority of the children there were older than I was.”
Eventually, her parents signed on with the Child Care Board to become foster parents, which Odle said helped her tremendously.
“Since I did not really have any friends, having other children around me at home meant at least I now had some company,” she said.
Another challenge at school was her inability to pursue her academic goals. “Although special needs schools take children between the ages of three and 18, they are categorised as primary schools, so the students do not get to do the Common Entrance or CXC examinations, which puts them at a significant disadvantage when they grow up and leave school,” Odle said.
“My parents fought with the Ministry of Education on this, and eventually we reached an agreement with the principal at the Wilkie Cumberbatch Primary School where I was allowed to sit in on the classes preparing for the Common Entrance Examination. I ended up doing the exam when I was 13 because apart from the fact I had to catch up, they also had to prepare a script in Braille for me.”
The determined Odle, who became the first blind student to write the Common Entrance Exam, eventually passed for the Combermere School, then went on to do Law and Literature at the Barbados Community College, where she was class valedictorian and a 2014 Barbados Exhibition winner.
She went on to the UWI Cave Hill Campus to study law. In December 2020, she became the first blind attorney in Barbados to be called to the Bar. She is currently in general practice, not yet specialising in any particular discipline.
The mother of a two-year-old boy highlighted the need for greater sensitivity to the treatment of women with disabilities.
“I have the same goals, dreams and aspirations as any other woman, but I had some unpleasant experiences when I was going through my pregnancy. For example, just after my son was born, my doctor asked me who would look after him. People believe that a disabled person is less capable but I disagree. In fact, we may not be able to do things traditionally, but owing to our differences we have to devise new and creative ways to go about everyday tasks,” she pointed out.
Odle is also the Accessibility Advisor for Future Barbados, a think tank comprising young people looking at ways to carry the island forward. She said she hopes the group’s proposals are taken seriously, as she insisted it was time people with disabilities are fully integrated into society.
“One of the main things holding us back now is that we are deprived of a proper education. It is only the children who show outstanding abilities who are allowed to sit the Common Entrance Examination, for example, whereas in regular primary schools everyone gets to do it regardless of their ability. I also see the need for more legislation to include people with disabilities in all areas of society, as well as sensitivity training in terms of how to handle them, particularly in the public sector.”
She concluded: “It is disrespectful to look down on people because of their abilities or lack thereof. We all have a role to play in this society, and we are just as creative as anyone else; we just need the opportunity to maximise our talents.”
This article appears in the 2022 edition of our International Women’s Day feature. Read the full publication here.