FIRST COMES THE GRUB...




    "There is no excuse for any country, whether big or small, whether strong or weak, to perpetuate a partition of its people into 'haves' and 'have-nots'." I said at the end of my address to the first regional conference on Blindness and Blindness Prevention of the Caribbean Council for the Blind (CCB) in Christ church, Barbados, September 1984, "" the title "From Charity to Collective Responsibility". I concluded that address, which, indeed, offered "pretty heavy stuff" as Mr. Aubrey Webson, then executive director of the Caribbean Council for the Blind expressed it, with a request for a survey of existing social security systems in the Caribbean area, so that we would be able to develop a general policy for the CCB, to promote sound social security systems throughout the region. The request was heeded as a good one and that was it. Nobody ever responded.



    On my travels through the region, since that memorable week in Barbados, I have learnt quite a few new facts, which did not really surprise me. They confirmed my conclusion, that we are all sons and daughters of our own, separate and isolated little island worlds and even though we are either handicapped ourselves, or working on behalf of the handicapped, we very rarely manage to rise above the general attitudes in our tiny worlds. Like the Caribbean author "" (Frank Martinus from Curaçao) once put it: "If you live in an island, the rest of the world is fiction."


     We all agree on one thing: we live in developing countries. We belong to the so-called Third World. The inventor of that term, I said in Barbados, "should be condemned to eternal oblivion", because as long as we cannot approach the world as one, there is something utterly wrong in it. And then, if there were any country which is not developing I would not want to live in it, because it would be a dead land, one in decay. So let's face it: the words "developed" and "developing" as applied to parts of our terrestrial globe, are nothing but euphemisms for "wealthy" and "poor", or, at best, "wealthy" and "less wealthy". The term "wealth" in this context, refers only to material well-being, not to cultural, historic and spiritual heritage. It is obvious, where ever you go in the so-called Third World, that the desire for development is directed exclusively upon that material well-being of the richer First and Second worlds. and thereby it becomes an epitaph for our cultural heritage....


    It is very remarkable that in many a so-called "developing country" the secondary fringe benefits for employees are exceptionally good, while the primary ones are either extremely meagre or even non-existent. In many of the Caribbean countries, employees enjoy very long vacations to the point of arousing jealousy amongst their peers in highly developed countries; but when they fall ill, their wages are immediately reduced to a minimum for a very brief period, after which they usually drop back to zero, at a time when they actually need more financial means than during healthy conditions.


    Transportation allowances, which are virtually non-existent in the highly developed countries, are incredibly "good" in some of the less developed countries, but, on the other hand they lack any form of a pension scheme to the extent, that at an age when they will no longer be able to work, they become utterly dependent upon either "welfare" if it exists or charity from the part of their younger relatives.


    Most countries do have some form of "welfare" but that word itself is definitely out of place for the kind of financial aid offered to the poor. Very rarely is there a legal right to financial support from the governments and the support that is given, usually as a favour, has been called in some places a "impediment for dying". This "impediment for dying" as a rule is all that is offered a handicapped person or anybody else who has no means to earn his own living and no relatives who can be compelled by the authorities to take him or her into their custody. On the other hand, high ranking civil servants and government officials often enjoy luxurious benefits as family allowances, internal and external travel allowances, housing allowances etc.


    In some countries in the Caribbean, like the Cayman Islands and Antigua and Barbuda, direct income tax is non-existent, a seemingly great benefit. It is, of course, for the high income groups. In the highly developed areas of the world, direct income-tax is often extremely high and strongly progressive, so that the higher incomes also bear the heavier burden and incomes are gradually leveled. But, while freed of the burden of income-tax, the burden becomes all the heavier when income drops away, either as a result of unemployment, sickness or as a consequence of disability. At that moment, there is no such thing as an "unemployment insurance" or a "disability insurance" that will guarantee an income, even if it remains far below the previous one. From whatever angle you look at it, indirect taxation alone bears most heavily on the lower and lowest income groups and is therefore in flagrant violation of human solidarity.


    In some countries, like Jamaica, -- where on the one end 19th century "poor laws" are still applied -- the handicapped have been exempted from paying income-tax; a seemingly very generous gesture by the politicians. The truth is, however, that for the politicians, it is just a way to buy off their obligations to introduce sound social security systems; it doesn't hurt the national economy, because the majority of handicapped people in countries like Jamaica receive no income at all, anyway, or, if they do it is too low to be taxed. The happy few who do benefit from it, seem to be utterly unaware of one basic fact: that rights cease to exist with the rejection of responsibilities! Those privileged handicapped people, who should be the leaders in the struggle for improved conditions for the handicapped in general, have forfeited their right to speak up, by their acceptance of such a provision.


    To avoid misunderstanding, let me make it perfectly clear, that I am not opposed to "tax credits". In most industrialized countries, tax credits -- i.e. a reduction of normal income tax -- for the handicapped are a common procedure. In some instances, they may have the same practical effect as tax exemption, but they do not dismiss a person of the responsibility to contribute to the good of society and therefore they do not eliminate his rights.


    One of the most serious problems is, however, that we, the handicapped, do not have the trade unions on our side, because it is precisely they who have also, to a great extent, forfeited their rights to speak up, by accepting such extremely good secondary fringe benefits for their members instead of demanding the primary ones first for the community as a whole. It may seem very appealing for an employee to have obtained, through his trade union, the right to a life assurance (to mention but one example) of say ten thousand dollars in case of 100% disability. But any disabled person could have shown the unions which bargained for that kind of fringe benefit, that it is again a form of buying off the real responsibilities, because the amount paid in case of 100 % disability will vanish in no time, particularly due to the high extra costs that the disability entails and, perhaps even more important: the insurance policies are usually such that only extremely rare cases are considered to be 100% disability. The fact, that the disabled person is incapable of earning himself a living does not make any difference for them. After all, for insurance companies, human needs are not their goals, but their means, to make a profit by which to enrich themselves.


     What goes for insurance companies as well as for all commercial enterprises explicitly, also goes for most interest groups in a society, though, perhaps less explicitly. If trade unions have obtained certain secondary benefits for their members, it is, because these direct privileges apparently appeal to their members. The structural changes of primary social security lie beyond the direct scope of short-term interest that most people and groups of people strive for. The same, ultimately goes for the handicapped as well. If none of the interest groups of the handicapped in Jamaica, for instance, protested the tax exemption act, which has brought no structural change in the living conditions of the handicapped in general, it is, because their spokesmen were the happy few to benefit from it.* As far as that's concerned, we not only live literally in separate, isolated islands, geographically speaking, but also as interest groups, psychologically speaking within the geographical boundaries of our countries or territories. It's not just charity that begins at home! As a matter of fact, in this expression, the word "charity" is evidently a euphemism for "self-interest". Indeed, not an uncommon attitude of people all around the world. As Saint Thomas Aquinus said: "Prius est vivere, quod philosophare", translated by the East-German playwrite Berthold Brecht as: "Erst komt das Fressen, dan die Philosophie.", that is: "first comes the grub then philosophy".


     Yet, if we want to achieve better living conditions for the visually handicapped, greater opportunities for them or, in a word, their integration into society, we shall have to take a good look at the foundations of our societies and decide to launch a battle for structural changes, that will not just benefit our own, isolated interests, but society as a whole, and as such, also ourselves, so that we may be grateful to ourselves, that we belong to a society, in which we are fully co-responsible for the well-being of all, including ourselves.




[*] This remark caused a strong negative reaction from some Jamaicans, when I published it in Caribbean Vision. The problem is, that the truth hurts!