When Raphael Maule left the Port-of-Spain General Hospital in 1981 after five weeks of intensive care, doctors told him if he were ever to see again it would be merely a glimmer. After a near-fatal car accident, Maule’s retinas were severely damaged.
Writing the doctors off as “crazy,” Maule sought a second opinion which led him to one of the most prestigious eye hospitals in the US—Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami.
A second round of extensive surgeries there and Maule, 67, finally had to face the facts: he was never going to see again. “I felt extremely cold at the time. I thanked the doctor when it was over, shook his hand and just walked away with my wife,” he said during an interview last week.
His loss of sight was not only a physical change, however. In fact the Belmont-born activist developed a passion for defending the rights of the visually impaired that led him to found the advocacy organisation Persons Associated with the Visually Impaired (PAVI) and become this year’s First Caribbean International Bank Unsung Hero after 17 years of service to the local blind community.
His role as human rights defender had not been cultivated before the loss of sight. “I don’t know that I was that kind of person that always stood up for people, but the way I saw people talking to the visually impaired and treating them badly just because they had vision and others did not, I knew it was wrong,” he said. “The things they were saying here I knew you couldn’t say that anywhere else and get away with it.”
Ask the mild-mannered Maule a few questions about how PAVI came about and one of his answers will be an anecdote about the first time he tried to vote as a blind person in the late 1980s. “I had to speak to about five different people and they were telling me that I couldn’t just go into the voting booth with my wife, but I needed an election officer and permission and a host of other things. I just couldn’t do it.”
Maule followed this incident with a letter to the Prime Minister and then a campaign to have voting rights amended. Now, the visually impaired can vote independently and in secret, he said.
Another anecdote Maule will share is his disappointment with the Blind Welfare Association. When Maule first joined the organisation, the only vocational training programme available in the organisation was basket weaving. After becoming a member of the association’s council, Maule and others began advocating for more comprehensive and relevant programmes. Providing comprehensive vocational training to the visually impaired is the foundation of PAVI’s mission.
Maule, who began learning braille almost immediately after his final diagnosis, spearheaded programmes including lifestyle coaching and computer training. PAVI has also partnered with the Government to integrate visually-impaired people into public sector positions.
Another achievement is PAVI’s role in the development of a Government policy on people with disability. Maule admits, however, that legislation is still needed but feels things are slowly changing for the disabled locally.
While his list of achievements within the organisation seems long, Maule seems to have maintained a humble demeanour.
Saying he never considered his advocacy anything but simple right and wrong, Maule admits receiving an award has pushed him to think differently. “All the while you figure this is just for the benefit of the community but now I’m realising this might be more significant than I thought.”
Maule said before he believed that he was simply finishing what he started. “If I was going to encourage people to set up an organisation and to do things for a marginalised community I have to stand by that to the end.”
These words make it clear that Maule has no intention of quitting soon. In fact it was hard for him to mention hobbies or life away from PAVI. “I eat, dream and sleep PAVI really,” he said.
He’s been writing calypsoes albeit for the Blind Welfare and PAVI competitions. However, in the past few years Maule said he’s been working on putting his emotions and experiences, particularly about the accident and loss of sight, onto paper. He’s also become active in the Anglican Men’s Society at his church in Arima.
Still none of his other activities come close to overshadowing PAVI. “The more you create awareness the more you have to do. From the time you teach one group of people, there arises another generation knowing nothing about blindness. We’re just going to continue doing what we think we need to do.”