Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : November 24th 2013 Contents Create a glamorous
Many people in T&T who have dis-
abilities just don t know what their
rights are---or whether they have any.
Allison deFranco, a US human rights lawyer
who is visually impaired, recently visited
Trinidad to meet with a small group of people
with different disabilities, to teach them their
rights as citizens.
"We don t really know what rights we have,
so being here has been an excellent opportunity
to learn," said one participant.
DeFranco led the session on human rights
as part of an educational series of modules
to train 17 selected people with disabilities on
how to be better advocates for change. Togeth-
er, the 17 local people form
the Leadership Academy,
a new group created
by the Consor-
tium of Disabil-
to ensure the
and other subjects as part of a two-year train-
ing programme to improve leadership skills
among disability-challenged people.
Codo launched the academy the week of
November 11 at the UTT Chaguanas campus.
Academy members had high praise and
thanks for deFranco, the 30-year-old lawyer
who led sessions on human rights from
November 11 to 14.
DeFranco spoke on the "rights-based"
approach to disability, which recognises a per-
son s disability as part of natural human diver-
sity, on the same basis as race or gender. This
approach places the responsibility on society
and on governments to ensure that the political,
legal, social and physical environments support
the full inclusion of people with disabilities.
DeFranco diagnosed at 14
"I was diagnosed at 14 with an eye
condition," said deFranco, a research
associate at the Harvard Law School
Project on Disability, in an interview
at UTT, Chaguanas.
"So I have no central vision. I
do have peripheral vision; in the
US I am considered legally blind,"
explained deFranco, who grew
up in a rural community in
Adirondack Park in Upstate
"So I can see shapes; but I
can t see faces (or anything)
right in front of me. Mobility
is not a problem for me because
of my peripheral vision; but I
have to use screen technology
to read," she explained.
A screen reader
with a synthetic voice, or displays it on a
refreshable Braille display. It is an example of
assistive technology, which is specialist tech-
nology that enables someone with a disability
to access information or mainstream tech-
"It was my experiences trying to access
information and books, advocating as a student
for better teachers and equipment for people
with disabilities in high school and university,
that influenced me. So by the time I got to
law school, I knew I wanted to do Disability
Law," she said.
DeFranco explained she came to rely on
screen readers to learn for all her courses by
the time she was in university; she also had
to adapt to learning by hearing, instead of
learning by seeing.
Mom her biggest advocate
"I lucked out because my mom in particular
was a wonderful advocate for me. So if I had
a problem with a teacher not providing a test
in an accessible format, she would go in and
help with that. In university, I didn t really
have the skills to articulate what I needed for
myself; to be honest, I think I was kind of
embarrassed. And then over time, I learned
I did need to have those skills...so I progressed
from having someone else help me with my
advocacy, to relying on my own efforts. I
realised: I want to help others with this, to
help them be confident and know what their
rights are, to be effective self-advocates."
DeFranco graduated in 2009 from Syracuse
Law School with her JD (Juris Doctor). She
went on to pursue a Masters in Education at
Syracuse University. But it wasn t all plain
sailing. She admits she experienced barriers:
"There were social barriers. In restaurants
I couldn t read menus. I had education barriers,
like not being able to read my text in books;
I couldn t see the board any more, from when
I was in high school, going into university.
Between 14 and 19 I lost all my central vision."
Meeting others with disabilities and con-
necting with their experiences was an impor-
tant first step to a kind of awakening for
DeFranco. She said: "What helped me a lot
was just meeting other people with disabilities,
with similar eye problems, just realising that
I m not that unique, and learning about strate-
gies that they used to access information, or
to identify a friend in a crowd, for instance."
"I think just doing what I want to do for
a job is a major achievement for me," said
DeFranco. "Knowing that when I started law
school, that this is what I wanted to do. I have
a law degree and a Masters in Education; I
have a lot of publications on disability rights.
It s an achievement to me that I m doing
exactly what I wanted to do."
In the United States, the disability rights
movement began in the 1960s, encouraged
by examples of Afro-American civil rights and
women s rights movements.
Defranco said: "People were returning from
Vietnam who were war veterans with disabil-
ities. And also, there were some major legal
cases related to education and children with
disabilities. It was like the Perfect Storm to
create the first disability legislation."
The USA has had both Federal (national)
and State legislation on disability rights for
more than 40 years, unlike here, where we
have none yet, and are just at the start of our
DeFranco said attitudes and environments
to disability here in T&T can change; we just
have to be open to it:
"I think it s really important to get this mes-
sage out to the general population, for people
to realise that yes, there are some barriers to
persons with disabilities, but a lot of these
barriers are created by society. Persons with
disabilities can work, can be employed, can
be really effective citizens in society. They
need their rights to be addressed."
DeFranco s last words of advice for people
with disabilities are:
"Know your rights. And know what you
need for accessibility. Be self-aware."
US human rights lawyer to locals with disabilities:
Celebrating the Feast
of Christ the King Page B6
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