All Woman

Christine Hendricks: A champion for the disabled

By NADINE WILSON All Woman writer wilsonn@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, November 12, 2012    

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SHE is a woman with many passions, and one that is very obvious upon meeting Christine Hendricks is her love for the care and well-being of those living with disabilities.

As executive director of the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities (JCPD), she gets to interact with these persons on a daily basis and assists in the formulation of policies that safeguard their self-respect and make them more independent.

She has no doubt in their capabilities, which were put on display during a recent All Woman visit to her office off Ripon Road. All around her, workers — most of them with disabilities — milled about answering phones, going through documents and enquiring after the well-being of walk-in visitors to the agency. The sight was proof of Hendricks' statement during the interview later, that those living with disabilities were not necessarily in need of charity, but rather, opportunities.

Hendricks admits that she was like the average Jamaican prior to joining the JCPD, with a limited knowledge of the struggles the disabled face daily. Although she was born with some of her fingers missing and deformed, she never considered herself as someone living with a disability prior to 1997. That was the year she met the then executive director of the JCPD, Ransford Wright, who was part of her class at the Jamaica Theological Seminary, where she was pursing her degree in guidance and counselling.

"He said that the fact that my fingers are the way they are is a disability and I could be registered with the Council for Persons with Disabilities, which at the time was looking for a principal rehabilitation officer," she said.

Wright had told her about the job opening because earlier that day, during a group counselling session, she had revealed to her classmates that her greatest fear was never finding a job after giving up her teaching job in Manchester to pursue full-time studies. Hendricks had taught at the Mile Gully Secondary School for five years upon graduating from Church Teachers' College. Her decision to become a teacher was made when as part of a Jamaica Youth Exchange Programme, she got an opportunity to volunteer at a local school. As part of the programme, she spent three months volunteering in Canada before she returned to Jamaica to volunteer. The classroom experience was an eye-opener.

"One afternoon coming home, it dawned on me that this was what I wanted to do," she said.

Though she gave up the profession after five years, she felt there was another mandate for her life and to pursue this, she had to leave her profession and her family in Manchester where she had lived ever since she could remember.

"I began to get uneasy and decided that I needed something else. Though I was teaching and I loved the students, I recognised that there was another skill in me that was not being utilised and that was that of being a counsellor," said Hendricks, who disclosed that she has a passion for young people.

Although she and her husband have no biological children, they have taken a few into their home over the years, and have got pleasure in witnessing their growth and development. Hendricks herself had benefited from the firm but loving ministrations of her grand aunt who took her in after her grandmother died.

"The fact that I didn't know I had a disability was due to my grand aunt," she said. "For my grand aunt, nothing was wrong with my fingers. I learnt to do everything like everybody else. She didn't give me any special attention; she did not give me anything special to do or not to do. I was as every other child, and so that was how she grew me up, not paying attention to the fact that I did not have some of my fingers. It didn't matter. It never came up."

At age 13, she went to live with her mother and, on the eve of her 24th birthday, met her father for the very first time. All along, Hendricks was told that he was dead, and was sure to point this out to the lady who stopped her once to enquire about her striking resemblance to her sister's husband.

As it turned out, the woman delved a bit further and carried out her own investigations, only to find out that her sister's husband was indeed Hendricks' father. But what was most shocking to the youngster, was the fact that her father and his wife were her next door neighbours, who she saw frequently when they visited Jamaica from Florida, where they lived. Hendricks now laughs about the whole affair, but at the time it was an emotional discovery.

Her focus now lies in contributing to the process of inclusive development planning for those living with disabilities. The JCPD in collaboration with the National Housing Trust was able to guarantee housing for more persons living with disabilities by reserving five per cent of new houses for these individuals.

The organisation and other stakeholders are now in the process of finalising plans for the first ever National Disability Friendly Awards Gala scheduled for November 19, to lift the image of those with disabilities and to acknowledge those that have contributed to their upliftment.

"We want to help the society to understand that people with disabilities do business, people with disabilities have disposable income, people with disabilities want to take vacations, but you must make your hotel and your products acceptable," she said.

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