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Disability no obstacle for Kerensa
Welcoming the team from the T&T Guardian into her Diego Martin home, when asked where she would like to have the interview, Kerensa Joshua laughed without hesitation and replied: “Anywhere. It doesn’t matter, I come with my own seating.”
It doesn’t matter to Joshua because she needs a manual wheelchair to get around.
The cheerful 40-year-old was paralysed from the chest down since 2007, and has to use the wheelchair to move.
She doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to her disability. Joshua says simply “I own it.”
A bright yellow sticker with bold, black writing on the left side of her wheelchair says: “Does this wheelchair make my butt look big?”
It’s one of many telling signs that Joshua is not ashamed of her disability, does not want people to be uncomfortable around her, and has accepted what happened six years ago.
She was the designated driver on the night of her car accident on September 30, 2007, when a vehicle slammed into the back of her Toyota Corolla near the Caroni Bird Sanctuary and sped off.
Her friend Narissa, who sat in the passenger seat, suffered a broken collarbone, while Joshua, in addition to a broken collarbone, broke her neck, spine and ribs.
Her life changed in a way that made independence impossible for a long time. Previously a human resource manager she became a T4 paraplegic (spinal injury from chest level), and could not bathe herself, or control her bowel movements.
These drastic changes meant hiring a full-time nurse and adult diapers became a necessity.
“I have to get up every five hours to change them,” she said matter-of-factly, sitting in her living room. Joshua, who has about 13 tattoos, including a colourful image of Lord Ganesha on her left upper arm, shared these personal details willingly, openly, unabashedly.
After the accident, she received a $200,000 claim cheque from her Accidental Death and Disability insurance policy, but sure enough that money plus her savings eventually ran out, and the $900 a week nurse had to go.
And that was when Joshua took control of her life and taught herself to live again, as an independent woman. She now bathes herself, changes her own adult briefs, cooks her meals, and exercises.
But even though Joshua has bachelors and masters degree in human resources, as well as more than 15 years of working experience, she cannot find full-time employment.
“I just need someone to stop letting the chair be a obstacle to the contribution I can make to their workforce,” she explained, adding that the disabled population was a viable workforce and society needed to recognise that.
But a person who cannot find full-time employment, needs money from someone or somewhere to get by.
When she first got out of the hospital, she applied for help from the National Insurance Board of T&T (NIB) requesting an invalidity benefit. After her approval from the board, she received about $1,078 a month which increased to $1,372 in 2013.
Because of this income, the Ministry of the People and Social Development has denied Joshua a disability assistance grant. Joshua said staff at the ministry told her because the money she received from NIB exceeded $1,000, she was not eligible for their grant.
“How am I, and people like me supposed to live?” she asked.
Saying she would never hire another nurse, the money was simply to live her life.
Adult diapers alone cost up to $800 a month, she explained.
Joshua is able to afford them because, after failing to qualify for the disability grant, she applied for a less-stringent public assistance grant from the ministry, which provides $850 a month.
NIB stopped its monthly payment in June last year, leaving Joshua with an extra $50 left over from the public assistance grant to get by. She has reapplied, and is awaiting approval still.
Not a cent over $1,000
The law on the disability assistance grant gives up to $1,500 a month for people with permanent disabilities. To qualify, applicants must not receive any other income from any other source, including pension and insurance, exceeding $1,000. Even if income exceeds the limit by 1 cent, the applicant automatically becomes ineligible for the grant.
A welfare officer within the ministry, who did not wish to be identified, explained there was no leeway in the law to address extenuating circumstances. For instance, if the applicant had several dependants, it would not affect how the application was reviewed. Also, in a case like Joshua’s, even with her exorbitant monthly expenses like adult briefs, it would not affect her eligibility for the grant.
However, some relief can be found via public assistance grants, which give applicants $850 a month. Welfare officers who make house visits when reviewing an application could recommend in their report to the board that such a grant is needed. There are no income criteria to meet for this type of grant, and the decision is made at the discretion of the four/five person board.
This is the grant Joshua currently receives, which goes directly toward buying the adult briefs.
Joshua is not bitter or angry. She lives with her brother Anton, who works during the day.
“There are people who are worse off than me. The ones who can’t talk and blink once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no,’” she said while demonstrating how she can cook for herself on a two-burner stove set on a custom-made table that is low enough for her to reach.
“I had to figure out for myself how to do everything, and YouTube is fantastic for that.”
As she put it, she simply wants the chance to live like a “normal” person, because that’s what she is: a Stag-loving partier at heart, who went solo to the Major Lazer concert in September and enjoyed a wine from a few jolly feters.
Those were the same kind strangers who then helped lift her wheelchair through the exit, which did not accommodate the disabled, like most of the buildings in T&T. She wants more facilities to be in place for all the people who are like her, living in silence and suffering.
The Public Transport Service Corporation (PTSC) has an Elderly and Differently-Abled Mobile (Eldamo) bus service, which was set up to provide a free transportation service for the disabled. Users must call the hotline 800-RIDE 24-48 hours in advance to arrange a pick-up, and must have a care giver accompany them on any trips. There are about 24 such buses in T&T.
Joshua uses the Rotary Club’s wheelchair bus to shop for groceries, as she has become good friends with a bus driver who helps her transfer in and out of the wheelchair bus.