As a disabled American I look forward to visiting the Bahamas every year. I love to partake in the wonders of the world and there is no place more wondrous than the Bahamas! I always come with my best friend Booster who has four legs and is not disabled. He is my service dog who once saved my life and continues to make life livable.
Last year I was joined by a blind friend on Grand Bahama Island. This year I hosted two blind friends, and a war veteran of 23 years who has P.T.S.D. and Stage IV Breast Cancer. We were all partnered with assistance dogs: two guide dogs, a mobility service dog, and a psychiatric service dog. Island Seas Resort accommodated us above and beyond the call of duty. We all wish to thank them for their generous support and understanding. I was graciously invited to lecture at St. Georges High School and at the College of the Bahamas. Mrs. Sheila Culmer, the President of the Bahamas National Council for Disabilities flew from Nassau with an assistant to attend the presentations. ZNS television covered the event and included the story on the nightly news.
Another story making headlines in the Bahamas is the desire to promote stem cell research in the Bahamas and to develop what is commonly referred to as medical tourism. I have experience with both as my service dog Booster is one of the first dogs in the U.S. to receive stem cell therapy and I was a medical tourist in Bangkok, Thailand. A week prior to coming to the Bahamas, Medivet America gifted the procedure which promises to help Booster overcome his disabling arthritis. He was facing retirement if not for the stem cell implementation he received just prior to flying into Freeport. Due to Medivet America’s innovative technology Booster was able to demonstrate his abilities to Bahamian students instead of staying home and watching Animal Planet!
The day Booster saved my life I promised him I would never take life for granted again and I would take a day out of every journey to share what dogs do to help mankind. My visit to the schools was yet another affirmation of that promise. Miracles have happened since we first came to the Bahamas half a decade ago, and we hope more are forthcoming. As an outsider looking in, I humbly share and make suggestions. Bahamian society is an educated society so I know suggestions are appreciated and reflected upon.
When I first came to Freeport Booster and I boarded a shuttle bus to Port Lucaya every day. When we wished to board the tour bus (owned by the same company) we were denied access. I explained to the owner of the tour company that the U.S. has a terrible civil rights record and we shamefully made minority members ride in the back of the bus. Rosa Parks is one of my heroes. I then explained that I too am a minority member. I belong to a minority called the disabled. I explained that kicking a minority member off the bus was far worse than making them ride in the back. I had just experienced discrimination in the Bahamas. I further explained to the tour company owner that he probably didn’t have a discriminatory bone in his body and that I appreciated his time. I was a ecstatic due to the opportunity for me to share.
The next year I once again bought a ticket to board the tour bus. I was told to please get on the bus ( with Booster). I asked the employee to please contact the tour company owner out of respect and ask for his permission. The response was: “Sir we welcome you on the tour!” I cried inside.
The very next year Mrs. Culmer invited me to address the Bahamas National Council for Disabilities. I was so proud to have received such an invitation. I met a young man who had studied in the U.S. He is blind and his best friend was his life enabling guide dog. Much to his chagrin, he had to leave his guide dog in the U.S. as Bahamian society was not yet ready to grant public access to dogs. His “eyes” would not be allowed indoors. His best friend would thus be a hindrance not a help. He left his “eyes” in a U.S. room that day.
Mrs. Culmer then arranged for a visit to the Golden Gates Native Baptist Church in Nassau during Disability Awareness Week. Booster demonstrated his abilities and I addressed the congregation. I explain that I saw fear in the room and that I also have fear. I awaken with PTSD flashbacks of a time when a knife almost killed me. I explained that I am afraid of something thats not real whereas the fear of a 100 pound dog IS real. I then explained that they had 90 murders in Nassau so far that year and not one was committed by a dog! I suggested that perhaps you should worry more about the human seated beside you than the dog seated in front of you! Perhaps it is man’s inhumanity to man that you should worry about more than a dog.
Last year Booster and I went to Cuba as part of my Project Fidelity which was the culminating project for my Master’s degree from Bergin University of Canine Studies located in Santa Rosa, California. My thesis was that canines are a social lubricant and promote social interaction. I was advised by U.S. contacts that I couldn’t get a dog into Cuba. I was told that the Cubans would quarantine Booster. I was told that I would be arrested if I tried to meet anyone since I only had a tourist visa. Bahamians were more supportive and got me into Cuba without hesitation.
Upon arrival in Havana Booster did what Booster does and we entered a Cuban classroom, met the Presidents of myriad organizations for the disabled, and even appeared on live Cuban television! I know of no other Americans to have done so in the last 50 years. Due to my fiduciary relationship with Bahamasair who got me into and out of Cuba my trip was a wonderful success. I now have Cuban friends from all walks of life and I believe I have the respect of the Cuban government. I certainly respect them for their excellence in education and medical access.
When I sent a letter of thanks to Bahamasair I received an email: “We are glad to have helped promote relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Further, we have amended out operations manual at Bahamasair to allow access for assistance dogs on all of our flights! Today the disabled from around the world can visit the Bahamas and island hop, spend money, and enjoy life.
A couple of years ago I wrote a letter to Prime Minister Ingraham encouraging the implementation of a law guaranteeing public access for the disabled. I understand that such a law has been pending while lives have gone by unassisted. I ask myself the rational question of how on earth you can promote medical tourism and invite the disabled in wheel chairs to get stem cell treatments when your society is not prepared to accommodate them. A wheelchair cannot enter most bathrooms here. The wheelchair cannot enter establishments due to lack of lowered curbs. A disabled person may not even be able to go on a tour bus if partnered with an assistance dog (guide dog, etc.) or get a hotel room to lay their tired body upon a bed.
Years ago we referred to people as “handicapped”. Today we call them disabled and the impediments that keep them from being able to do what others can do are the “handicap”. A government that knowingly, for whatever excuse, fails to provide access for the disabled is a “handicap”. In the U.S. we have a law called the Americans With Disabilities Act that mandates certain reasonable accommodations for the disabled. Many suggest that it was not necessary to pass such a law. I am living proof that such a law is desperately needed because I had to go to Federal court to get access to my own condo in Destin, Florida. There is a man right now who is in pain and has Mirsa eating away his flesh. His Florida condo association is fighting him over his right to have his service dog in his own home. It was easier to get my dog into Communist Cuba than into my own home in Florida! Compassion is often elusive in a selfish society.
It is ironic that animals are often protected before humans and children. In England animals were protected by legislation in the 1800’s. Only later were the humans and children protected. Today the Bahamas has a wonderful animal protection law but no law for the endangered disabled!
As I write, Bahamian leaders are struggling to decide what to do with respect to legalizing some aspects of gambling. They worry that it might damage some souls. Perhaps a certain portion of gambling revenue should be legitimately ear marked to help the disabled and provide grants for businesses to enhance public access for the disabled. This effort may help decision makers decide what the right thing to do might be. If some souls are hurt and some are helped by the ramifications of legalizing aspects of gambling it might make the decision process more viable.
As I stated in the letter to Prime Minister Ingraham years ago I would love to see the Bahamas become the Mecca for the disabled. I implore you to cater to the disabled like Monaco caters to the rich. To consider investing in stem cell research and medical tourism without the under pinning of a law for the disabled would be troublesome. You do not want the disabled going home speaking of Bahamian discrimination due to ignorance bedded in lack of awareness.
Kudos to Bahamsair for their courageous effort to modernize Bahamian society. Kudos to Mrs. Culmer for her tireless 20 year efforts on behalf of the disabled who need their law so they can equally enjoy the lives others take for granted. Kudos to the newspapers and ZNS for allowing education based upon exposure. Kudos to Island Seas for courageously allowing dogs for the disabled onto their property. I hope to extend a similar kudos to the Bahamian government for passing a law to ensure access for the disabled. To do nothing, for whatever excuse, is to aid and abet a wrong.