Patrick Manning is disabled. Can we say that out loud? It’s no more shameful than my being gay. Or the quiet Seventh Day Adventist grandmother and former government worker Catherine Williams being a person living with HIV. Or a candidate for the neighbouring San Fernando West constituency being transgender. Our swaggerific former Prime Minister is a person living with a disability. It certainly hasn’t impaired his stubbornness.
Enough of the euphemisms! It’s not his “health”. We are having a national debate about the fitness of a person with a disability to represent a constituency in the Parliament. The delicacy with which media reporting had until last week sidestepped the fact that the sharp-tongued Prime Minister couldn’t talk for himself has been insufferable. It’s like hiding the child with Down’s Syndrome. What more powerful way to end the stigma against people with disabilities, to protect them from the kind of abuse suffered by Robbie Ramcharitar at the hands of police on Harris Promenade, than to create a link between the dignity of a begging vagrant and that of the man who put the national coat of arms on his vehicle.
And, no, unlike Prof. Selwyn Ryan, who likened his tabanca for office to a psychiatric illness, I am not making fun of Mr. Manning’s disability.
Make no mistake, at the centre of the debate about the mistaken father of the nation’s new candidacy is leadership and power within the PNM, whether he will do anything but harm his party, and the inability of Caribbean leaders to let go. But it is also, fundamentally, a debate about whether someone who cannot speak can represent.
Despite technology—readily available to a Parliament self-consciously and expensively modernising itself—that could allow Mr. Manning to type and be heard aurally, representation by those whose disability involves speech seems a harder swallow than representation by someone who cannot see or who cannot walk.
I’m proud that one of President Carmona’s most skilful uses of his office has been to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities, including his appointment of my old schoolmate “Six” Roach to the Senate’s Independent bench. The Parliament promptly accommodated his use of a wheelchair. Though it took the Judiciary five years to build the Hall of Justice ramp its own ruling required after George Daniel’s 2005 suit.
I recently lost an election to constitute a national Civil Society Board to a wonderful union leader who organises domestic workers. A Baptist Bishop, who also lost, asked people not to vote for a homosexual. Some of the best NGO leaders ran. After spending $2 million, the National Diversity Ministry’s headstrong advisors ignored our advice and, predictably, we ended up with many candidates tied with one vote each, including two respected advocates vying to represent people with disabilities. One of them is blind. Several of our colleagues who are not disabled suggested he might not be the best person of the two to serve on the Board for that reason—effectively arguing that his disability disabled him from representing people with disabilities.
Wayne Kublalsingh has compared Mr. Manning favourably to Mrs. Persad-Bissessar, calling him a gentleman. I recall him comparing stooping to debate her as—he cited his mother as the phrase’s source—entering a spraying contest with a skunk. I sometimes wonder how history might be different had the NAR not been gracious in 1986, and the 62-vote margin of victory in San Fernando East that made him the unexpected Leader of the Opposition had been reversed in a recount. As the nephew of the woman who might have been our first female Opposition Leader two decades before Kamla challenges Manning for the nomination, I wonder how gender in politics might look now, and what would have happened when the PNM won in 1991. I often think of Patos as I look out over the waterfront from the Hyatt or Breakfast Shed, and remember childhood in an industrialised Caribbean capital that had no pedestrian vista on the Caribbean. I ponder his capacity for the most savoury Parliamentary picong, like his “Midnight Robber” descriptor of the Prime Minister’s millinery at Ellis Clarke’s funeral, and how that sharpness of tongue might sound assisted by Siri.
Girls and women who do not want to complete a pregnancy, married women who want to say no to their husbands, people living with HIV, Rastas who want their children to go to Convent, gay men, Muslims who want to grow their beards or cover their hair, young people convinced they are of a gender different from their genitals, Baptists whose manifestations were once banned, women who want to be safe no matter what they wear, lefthanders, and people with disabilities—all share a struggle to advance the recognition of bodily rights. To have our different bodies respected; to ensure we get to control our own bodies; and to allow us to live as full lives as possible.
Despite the long history of sexual diversity within the PNM elite, of Joan Yuille Williams’s bravery in including sexual orientation and gender identity in her historic gender policy, Patrick Manning never defended my bodily rights. In fact, he was cited as the prime barrier to any leadership on equality for LGBT people by his party. I’d never vote for him. But I am willing to fight for his rights. And he and his disability have every right to run.
Forging the liberty to love: one nation…many bodies…boundless faith