Agency Heads Say More Help Needed for Disabled

Julien Henley, ADA Coordinator, told senators Monday that much work needed to be done. (Photo courtesy of V.I. Legislature)

Angus Drigo, executive director of the Disability Rights Center of the Virgin Islands, was not present Monday at the Committee on Culture, Youth, Aging, Sports, and Parks, but his candid written testimony was read, and it hung over the hearing.

Sen. Angel Bolques Jr., who chaired the committee, referred to it several times during the hearing and called the testimony “riddling.”

Drigo wrote, “As a territory, the Virgin Islands has failed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Ac t … Despite DRCVI’s best efforts — from litigation campaigns, training events, and many years of grass-roots advocacy — ADA compliance has fallen woefully short when it comes to access to government offices, playground areas, businesses, and shopping districts, especially in the downtown areas. Even when these entities have made gains to comply, it often falls short.”

Sen. Marvin Blyden said what Brigo wrote was of great concern because the territory had an “aging population.”

Julien Henley Sr., Territorial ADA coordinator for the V.I. government, did not present as dark a picture in his testimony. However, he did say the situation was “far from perfect.”

He prefaced that remark by telling senators, “The state of our disability community here in the Virgin Islands, which averages just above 8,000 citizens, has shown significant improvement.”

He added, “The Bryan-Roach administration continues to fight existing stigmas that discourage people from seeking services they qualify for.”

Two areas of concern for Henley were VITRAN and medical personnel. He said VITRAN needed more drivers and buses to serve those with disabilities. Territory doctors’ offices can also be complex for those with visual and hearing impairments.

Drigo, in the testimony he submitted to the committee, listed examples of his concerns.

They included:

  • A wheelchair ramp may be added to a building, but the ramp is not wide enough for a person who uses a wheelchair to navigate a sharp turn.
  • Electrical poles or decorative lamps are erected territory-wide in the middle of sidewalks, making it hard for an individual to maneuver a wheelchair as the space on either side is too small and potentially too dangerous to traverse.
  • Decorative cobblestones, although aesthetic, also pose a problem as this makes wheelchairs and walkers hard to maneuver.
  • The Midre Cummings Ballpark, while beautifully done, is not ADA-compliant. One of the most glaring deficiencies is access to restrooms. No concrete walkway leads to the bathrooms, making it difficult to access.

The DRCVI primary office is in Frederiksted, with a satellite office on St. Thomas. It has an 11-member staff that includes three full-time lawyers/advocates.

Also testifying was Monique Bute, the Association for Independent Living executive director, and Yvonne Petersen, executive director of Beyond Visions Foundation.

The association is a nonprofit organization that enables disabled people to live independently in the community. The organization seeks to help those with disabilities gain independent living skills such as cooking, self-esteem, self-confidence, budgeting, and decision-making skills. It also works to provide peer-to-peer counseling, information, and referrals to applicable services. Bute said the association is a nonprofit that receives a $100,000 grant from the Human Services Department.

Beyond Visions Foundation is the Family-to-Family Health Information Center for the Virgin Islands. It is a federally funded program through the Health Resources and Services Administration.

“As a community, we must do better in supporting these organizations that work tirelessly to improve the lives of our citizens with disabilities,” Bolques said after the meeting.

Sens. Angel Bolques, Marvin Blyden, Samuel Carrion, Alma Francis Heyliger, Novelle Francis Jr., and Franklin Johnson attended Tuesday’s hearing.