Aimi Hamraie & Floyd Morris– USA & Jamaica
A survey of accessibility in Kingston, Jamaica
An interview with Aimi Hamraie and Floyd Morris discussing Jamaica’s resilience against inaccessible infrastructure created by colonialism and the creation of the Morris scale.
Hamraie: Could you tell us about how you became interested in how cities are designed and planned?
Morris: I developed blindness at the age of 20 and I came to the city of Kingston at the age of 21. As a blind person, I couldn’t navigate the system.
Sidewalks were riddled with potholes, uneven, unpredictable, and inaccessible. Power companies installed light poles in the middle of the walkways. Wires were sticking out. A blind person using a white cane would have no knowledge of how and where those wires were. Public facilities were built without ramps for wheelchair users. Elevators did not have any Braille inscription. Shopping plazas did not have any form of support structure for persons who are blind and visually-impaired or persons with other physical disabilities.
I read an article of yours in “Disability Studies Quarterly” where you explain the Morris scale for assessing the accessibility of cities. How did you develop this scale?
These are things that persons with disabilities need to be able to function on a day-to-day basis. When I was preparing the article and conducting research on a city, I had to establish a set of criteria in terms of what would constitute minimum accessibility. This is what I regard as the flooring, and what you saw in the [Disability Studies Quarterly] article constitutes a minimum threshold.
Was there a broad coalition of people with different kinds of disabilities creating this minimal standard? How did you make decisions about it?
I’ve been an advocate for persons with disabilities since 1991. I have listened to conversations since that time, because I served in different capacities as minister of government, as a parliamentarian, and as a researcher. I formulated the minimum threshold after going to the meetings and listening to the concerns of persons with disabilities. The research was also driven by literature on the issues of accessibility in the field.
I also looked at countries like the United States, Canada, the UK, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. I went to New Zealand a couple of years ago, and I was absolutely impressed by the ease at which you can navigate your way around the city of Wellington. The sidewalks were spacious. When you reach a pedestrian crossing, technology would be telling you when to go, when to stop and when you should move. When you go into the various stores…there are special provisions for those who are blind and visually impaired. That exposure and knowledge of the international arena gave me insights when developing the scale to fit the context of a developing country, especially here in the Caribbean, while recognizing our associates’ historical contexts.
Your article offers a really fascinating discussion of how we have to put accessibility in Jamaica in context and think about colonialism. Could you expand on that?
Caribbean countries have been subject to colonial rule for over 300 years. First, the Spaniards came in the 1490s with Christopher Columbus. They occupied the Caribbean until the British came in 1655. The British came and established their own architectural type. This new architecture lasted for well over 300 years because Jamaica gained its independence in the 1960s. There was a wave of independence among English-speaking countries from 1962 through the 1980s. We received political independence, but there was no subsequent effort to make the infrastructure of the region accessible for persons with disabilities. Following independence, Caribbean public infrastructure like schools, churches, shopping plazas, and workplaces were built without any form of access for persons with disabilities. Since the International Year for the Disabled in 1981, disability was seen in the context of social barriers rather than the traditional welfare model of disability. In the 1990s, there were standard rules established to outline certain criteria for making the world more inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities. The standard rules were not observed because they had no legislative grounding. In the 2000s, the United Nations developed a Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The issue of accessibility was fundamental, whether for the built environment, schools, or public health. So we have moved away from a welfare medical model that emerged in a colonial context to that of a social, rights-based model in the 21st century.
Could you say more about accessibility in terms of arts and culture in Jamaica?
I wrote a book (currently in press) on cultural inclusion and music. Jamaica has a thriving and vibrant culture. Reggae music is well-known internationally, but what is not well-known is the contribution of persons with disabilities to that music industry. I have sought to chronicle it by looking at some of the major players in the industry. For example, the oldest musical band on the island is a group of blind and visually-impaired persons that has been around for almost 50 years. I documented how they evolved and how they have survived.
I want to see a world where persons with disabilities are integrated and brought into mainstream society. How we are going to do that is by making sure that public infrastructure is accessible. We have to make sure that information technology is accessible. We have to make sure that our literature or language is accessible. These are some of the things that I would be pushing for.
Aimi Hamraie is associate professor of Medicine, Health, and Society and American Studies at Vanderbilt University, where they also direct the Critical Design Lab. They are the author of “Building Access: Universal Design and the “Politics of Disability” and host of the Contra* podcast.
Senator Dr. Floyd Morris is the Director of the UWI Centre for Disability Studies at UWI Mona. He was recently elected to the powerful United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and is the CARICOM Special Rapporteur on Disability. He is the author of several international journal articles and the author of two books ‘By Faith, Not By Sight’ and ‘Political Communication Strategies in Post Independence Jamaica 1972-2006’.