The first signs of her disability surfaced over a decade ago with a sometimes shaky walk and a drunk-like amble. Then, Maria Holder-Small got a diagnosis that would change her life forever.
She was told she had multiple sclerosis. Subsequently, she went from being a sprightly, socially active person and employee who often went beyond the call of duty, to becoming a wheel-chair user.
Last year, Holder-Small became leader of the island’s disabled community when she was elected President of the Barbados Council for the Disabled. Taking on this responsibility has catapulted Holder-Small to the forefront of an ongoing struggle by disabled persons to enjoy the same rights of equal access and treatment as other Barbadians.
In this leadership role, she has found that issues of the differently-abled go beyond what meets the eye and that therein lies a new set of challenges especially for women. In a Barbados TODAY interview, she revealed that an untold number of disabled women are skipping annual physical check-ups because the elevated examination tables used by doctors are not disabled-friendly.
“It is very difficult for a female going without a caregiver, and having to be hoisted on the table,” she said. This challenge exists both in private clinics and the Government-run polyclinics.
“Therefore, we have women who stay away and don’t get the regular examination because of that major lack of facility,” she said. She said some female wheelchair users confided about not visiting a gynaecologist in a long while for this said reason, but even worse, “some of them don’t even have a gynaecologist because of the same old system of women going and having to get on the table,” Holder-Small explained. “The tables are usually very high.
You have to be lifted. It is not a case where the bed can be lowered to accommodate you,” she added. Then there is the challenge across genders of public toilets with designs that make them unfriendly to the disabled.
For example, the door swings inwards, making it impossible for wheelchair users to close it for privacy. According to the BCD president, members encountered this difficulty just recently on the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, during an awareness drive. She mentioned the experience of a male wheelchair user going to the bathroom. “He did go in, but he couldn’t turn in the cubicle.
When I went and checked the ladies, it was the same set up. I would not have been able to get in there. And this is the University of the West Indies,” she said. Some men have taken advantage of the male physiology and adapted by carrying urine bottles to replace the toilet bowl. However, the plight remains for a female wheelchair user. “For a lot of women, if you cannot walk to the toilet, you have to leave the door ajar. You have no choice.
“That takes away your privacy of using the bathroom like any other person,” Holder-Small said. Championing the cause of persons with disabilities is a world removed from her past as a worker in an accounts office and a graduate in Human Resource Management. “Having a disability changed my whole life, but the amount of people whom I have touched while having this disability has been unbelievable,” remarked Holder-Small.
Friends are in awe at her transformation. “It’s a survival instinct, and I guess knowing God makes a difference in coming through that really tough patch,” she said. “That was a very rough and hard road. I’ve always been an independent person, always knew what I wanted, and have always been a go-getter. She added: “And I think the hardest thing in my lifetime was having some of that independence taken away.” She recalled the disturbing period before the diagnosis and, “trying to understand what was going on within the body”.
“You’re not even aware that your gait is off. You just feel like you’re walking normal, and my work colleagues would say to me, ‘Maria, you walking like if you’re drunk’.” Having just recently celebrated her 19th year of marriage, Holder-Small beams that her husband, Stephen, has been ever supportive throughout the life-changing experience. She noted that some six years after the diagnosis, her form of mobility changed. “I became a wheelchair user about four years ago.
The time flies really quickly. “I think I started to see the world differently before, but honestly being a wheelchair user now is a whole different,” she said. She went-on: “Having a bit of both worlds makes me look at things so differently.
I miss driving. Going for walks on the beach. Singing in the choir. But you find a way to work with what you have.”
by George Alleyne