Gary handed me a CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso used by tourists) and motioned to the boy on the sidewalk. Candy bars were arrayed on his wheelchair tray table. He could have been fourteen or fifteen. I wondered why he wasn’t in school, and how he managed to get to that spot on the pavement.
I asked our tour guides about children with disabilities. “They go to special schools,” he said. He didn’t need to add “segregated.” I knew what he meant.
Cuba is committed to education for all, but with a strained economy it’s hard to imagine hi-tech equipment in classrooms, especially in the special schools. Until 2008, Cubans were barred from buying their own computers. The latest statistic I could find was from 2011. At that time, there were only 783,000 PCs in the entire country, and 50% of those were government owned. Everyone must share the limited resources. People who need hi-tech speech generating devices, the kind Ariela used to communicate, probably go without.
The boy selling candy bars was a rarity on the street. In my 7 days in Cuba, I saw only two other people in wheelchairs. There are no curb cuts and many of the sidewalks and streets are pockmarked and full of broken pavement.
Because of Ariela, I am forever conscious of stairs and other barriers to people who use chairs. Aside from our Spanish owned hotel with ramps in the middle of the lobby, there were steps everywhere, with no evidence of alternatives, much like the U.S. before the Americans with Disabilities Act became effective. Our Cuban tour guide seemed reluctant to answer my questions, but he finally acknowledged that the reason I saw so few people with physical disabilities on the streets was because they had little means to get out and get around.
In Santiago de Cuba, I saw a man in a wheelchair rolling down a busy street. Without curb cuts it was impossible for him to get up on the sidewalk. I approached the man to ask if he wanted help. Before he could respond, two burly guys emerged from a nearby crowd and waved me off. They had been watching out for him. There would be help when he needed it. That’s when I saw the true nature of the Cuban people.