Floyd Morris: The blind wonder is a leader of men Pt 2

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

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Senator Floyd Emerson Morris continued his climb up the ladder of history on May 17, 2013 when he was sworn in as the first blind president of the Jamaican Senate. The extraordinary story of the life of Floyd Morris and his dizzying rise from quiet Bailey's Vale, St Mary, to the heights of power in the Jamaican Parliament, was told in the award-winning Desmond Allen Interviews written in November 2004. Read on and be amazed:

DEFYING overwhelming odds is a task for great men. But greatness was not what Floyd Morris had in mind as he met and overcame obstacle after obstacle, in the cruel world of blindness to which fate, it seemed, had sentenced him without explanation.

At age 14, when the first tender indications of manhood were beginning to emerge, he started to go blind from glaucoma. At 20, after six intervening years of hellish existence in a virtual black hole, he was sure his life was over. But something made him fight back, and having mastered the use of Braille and acquired new skills at the Jamaica Society for the Blind (JSB) in 1991, he grabbed hold of a new lease on life. From here on, he felt the sky was the limit and he determined in his heart that his blindness was nothing more than a challenge to be faced and overcome.

The first step towards becoming a radio announcer was to get some CXCs to qualify himself to go to university. Shaking off the years of anger, depression, hopelessness and the tendency to despair, Morris felt a powerful new surge of energy and optimism. This was the attitude that gave him the impetus to approach the Campion College evening school. When a hapless co-ordinator told him he could not make it as a blind person, he felt his world collapsing around him.

Mico College said 'yes'

But at the worst of times, Morris could summon up from deep within himself, the determination to go on. This was just another of those moments. Undaunted by the Campion College naysayer, he went to the Mico Evening College at Marescaux Road. There, that co-ordinator told him five subjects were too many for him to manage but she would allow him to do three -- Maths, English and Accounts at 'O' Level. He had to tape all the classes and for maths, he had to learn a new code and new signs for plus and minus in Braille. Because of the special difficulties, it is a subject many blind people hesitate to do. But Morris passed all three subjects in one year. He was back on track!

For this, he'd especially remember the efforts of his math instructor, Mr Hayes. In English, it was Mrs Jessie Shirley -- mother of the prominent brother and sister, Gordon and Anne Shirley - who went beyond the call of duty. She warmed his heart when she told him she had seen real talent in him. And in accounts, for which he got a distinction, Errol Rose would be credited. It was a miracle of sorts. Morris had to work with graphs, ledgers and journals. One bad entry could throw out the entire accounts.

In year two at Mico, he decided he would do four subjects -- accounts and economics at 'A' Level and history and commerce at 'O' Level. "This time, the co-ordinator asked me if it was only four I was doing," Morris laughs heartily. Up to that point, he was planning to get into the full-time teacher's programme at Mico. But now he decided he'd go straight to university. He applied to the University of the West Indies (UWI). It didn't matter that he did not have the first cent, having depleted all his savings by this time.

The day a family cried

But in the hearts of the Jamaican people flows an unending supply of the milk of human kindness. It is a generosity that has held a small island together through thick and thin. And Morris would need them now. While he was still at Mico, Morris would regularly go to the JSB. It was there that he met Jacqueline Smith-Douse who works out of the HEART/NTA. She was a volunteer at the JSB. Her family had been long-standing supporters of the Society.

Smith-Douse felt strangely drawn to Morris. She noticed he was always neatly put together and looked rather handsome. She asked some other volunteers at the JSB about him. She wanted to meet him. When she did she realised why. His spirit was indomitable. She invited him to worship with her at the Seventh-day Adventist Church on Rousseau Road in Kingston and a good friendship developed. Morris grew to love her family, her brother Glen Smith and her sister Sharon Smith-McDonald. They adopted him as their own. Every weekend they would pick him up and take him to their home on Red Hills Road.

One evening, as Morris related his story, Sharon began to cry. "That happens a lot," he says. Then everybody started to cry. It was an emotional moment out of which would be born a friendship that would endure through the years. The next week, Sharon went to Miami, and while there, she bought a range of electronic gadgets including a talking typewriter, to equip him to study and manage better as a blind person. They all chipped in to help him with assignments.

"Glen never saw me as a blind person. His mother, Maureen Gordon, accused Glen of 'brukking me out'," Morris laughs again. "He took me everywhere with him." That included Boys Champs one year. Wanting to avoid the surge of the crowd, Smith told Morris they would have to run for it. That meant running down all the steps. "But he had learnt to run with me in such a way that I did not trip even once," says Morris. Those fun days ended when CIBC, now FirstCaribbean International Bank, transferred Smith to Belize. But the strong bonds of friendship remain, Morris emphasises.

A walk in the rain

He recalls a special Mico moment when on a day when the weather was nasty and the streets were inundated, his brother who used to pick him up at school, could not get to him. Morris decided he would walk to Cross Roads. When he stepped into the street, it was to find that there were pools of water everywhere, except in the middle of the road. He walked to Cross Roads using the middle of the road all the way.

Morris completed Mico and was accepted by the UWI. Broke, but with the goodwill he enjoyed among friends, he decided to press ahead. He successfully applied to the Students' Loan Bureau for a loan and started his Mass Communication course. Anne Shirley, at the time with Eagle Commercial Bank, continued to assist him, wanting to make sure that he got into university. Her mother had insisted to Anne that Morris was her new son. Mrs Shirley would take him groceries and other necessities while he was on campus.

'Ray Charles' on Taylor Hall

All that Morris had done before was leading him to this day. He did not know what the future would bring or what fate awaited him in this brave new world. But of one thing he was certain: he was willing to face untold odds to achieve his dream and bask in the light of learning. Morris chose 'Butcher's block', Taylor Hall as his hall of preference. The resident advisor was immediately concerned about his presence, admitting that he had never dealt with a blind person on hall before. Morris in himself was a life-changing event for many such people.

He preferred Taylor Hall because it was co-educational and known for its outstanding successes. It had a reputation of being a tough customer. It was there that he earned the nickname 'Ray Charles' after the late great blind American singer. "Dr Omar Davies, the finance minister still calls me that." Morris' sojourn on Taylor Hall was eventful. They had to put in place facilities to help him get to classes on time and to get around generally. He was a member of several study groups and they ensured that he received all the relevant information for his courses. He remembers that it was the women who stood out in this respect, although there were men who were highly supportive. "But it was just one fantastic encounter," he describes it.

The names that come immediately to mind include Paula Dawson who is now a medical doctor; Erica Gordon, now at Sam Sharpe Teachers' College and whom he regarded as his confidante and who would read all his private and confidential documents for him; Susan Foster, later to become a television broadcaster in Barbados; Shawn Nicholas, one of his most faithful readers from Barbados; Matthew 'Knife' Harvey; Julian Devonish, his best friend from Barbados; Arnoldo Brown; and Ruez Warren aka 'Hugh Small' from Hanover, among a host of others.

Morris became a star on campus. He was a happy man, soaking up all the attention he was getting. "It was really an exciting time of life for me," Morris reflects.

In his first year at UWI, 1994, he was elected deputy hall chairman from the Guild of Students, becoming the first disabled person to do so. The Guild president was Armstrong Alexis from St Lucia and Philmore 'Pump' Johnson was hall chairman for Taylor Hall. People referred to the team of Morris and Johnson as 'Pump and Blinds'.

Winning scholarships

Morris was also rapidly becoming known for his ability to articulate the issues and to negotiate on behalf of students. "Alexis did not make a move without me and Philmore Johnson," he recalls. The blind wonder was nominated for many awards, and won some, for outstanding leadership on campus. He won several scholarships that helped to ease his financial strain. These included the Workers Bank Scholarship for a disabled student excelling in academics, the Sir Frank Worrell Scholarship for academics and community service and the Circle K International Scholarship for contribution to the development of the Circle K, the youth arm of the Kiwanis Club. To top it off,

Morris performed spectacularly in academics, graduating with an honours degree in Mass Communication in 1996 and applied immediately to pursue a Master of Philosophy degree in Government, as well as a tutor in Trevor Munroe's Department of Government. He was accepted on both counts.

Among the university staff who enjoy his eternal gratitude are Dr Michael Witter; Christine Cummings; Alison Anderson; Professor Aggrey Brown; Dr Marlene Hamilton; Professor Rupert Lewis; Fae Ellington; Peter O'Sullivan; and Pauline Richards.

Encounter with the prime minister

Morris recalls a fateful encounter with no less than the prime minister of Jamaica, P J Patterson, the year before he graduated. The PM had gone to the campus to speak with students and the Social Science Lecture Theatre was packed to capacity to hear him. Patterson was fielding questions when Morris stood up and addressed him in a very assertive voice and proceeded to lambaste the government about its policies in education and on increasing student fees. Patterson, obviously taken aback by this seemingly rash young man, hit back that no one should doubt his commitment to education.

But the matter did not end there. Some months later, Horace Clarke, the Central St Mary MP and good friend of Morris and his mother, told him that Patterson had related how a blind student had been very assertive towards him at the university and he wanted to know where he came from. "When Clarke told him 'he is my boy, PM', Patterson responded 'Oh, that is why him so miserable, he is from St Mary!'" Morris relates.

People around Morris began to realise that he had political potential and was a natural leader. He decided to join the PNP Youth Organisation (PNPYO). Right after Morris' graduation, Basil Waite, later to become president of the PNPYO, was elected president of the Guild. Morris served as an advisor to Waite and they became good friends. He it was who encouraged Waite to follow him into the PNPYO.

In 1997, Cuba hosted the World Youth Congress and Morris went to the meeting wearing two hats -- PNPYO representative and a member of the community of disabled persons. Also attending were Marcia Pitt and Pamela Redwood, the current assistant to local government and sports minister, Portia Simpson Miller. Reports from the meeting were that Morris starred the show. He was regularly interviewed on Cuban television, and while there, became a model for the disabled community, showing that despite his own blindness, he could be very active and outspoken.

A man for the campaign trail

His performance did not escape the attention of the other PNPYO members. So when Region Three, led by the famous Paul Burke, was seeking a speaker for its annual conference, Pitt and Audrey Budhai suggested they invite the blind UWI lecturer. Burke liked the idea and Morris lit up the conference room at the upscale Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. He remembers Peter Phillips and Simpson Miller among the many people who heaped praises upon him. General elections were near, and based on the electrifying speech Morris had made, Budhai and Sharon Hay Webster arranged it so that he would speak at many of the PNP campaign meetings across the country. Maxine Henry-Wilson, the party general secretary, invited him to address her series of motivational sessions for party workers.

This now would be the springboard from which Morris would launch himself into national leadership. On a particularly memorable day, that would have left even a sighted person severely stressed out, Morris took the bus from Portland to address a PNP street meeting in Annotto Bay, St Mary; from there to Port Maria, the capital; then from there to Ocho Rios; then to Montego Bay and finally to Green Island, Hanover! The third term was secured and Morris was now poised for greater things to come.

Patterson made it known he wanted the voice of youth in the Senate and invited suggestions. Audrey Budhai, Horace Clarke, Paul Burke and Marcia Pitt began to lobby feverishly for the 29-year-old Morris to be the man. They argued that his disability and concern for that community would give Patterson two for one.

"The prime minister did not hesitate and he named me senator. That meant a whole new ball game for me," he recounts.

Patterson was on his voicemail

Morris completed his MPhil in 2000 and was employed as a consultant at the National Youth Service, while teaching first-year politics in the Department of Government. And then it happened.

This was 2001. Patterson kept on his thinking cap all day. He wanted a strong voice to represent the youth on his executive team. This time he needed no lobby to help him decide. Floyd Emerson Morris: this was the son of St Mary in whom he was well pleased. Morris had not merely warmed the Senate benches. He had championed with great energy and conviction the cause of the disabled and the youth and had more than justified his selection.

When Morris cleared his voicemail, he was shocked to hear the prime minister himself leaving a message that he wanted to see him. Morris felt a tightening in his chest and his heart began to beat faster. He wondered what he had done now. He jumped on the phone and called Budhai and Clarke to feel them out, to see if they had heard anything. Both said they were sure he had nothing to worry about and he should just go and see the PM. At the meeting, Patterson asked Morris what he was doing at the time, informing him that he had a job for him. He wanted him to join the social security team at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security as minister of state to Danny Buchanan. Morris wondered if he had heard right, but the PM was serious: did he want the job? "Yes, Prime Minister," he said, recollecting his thoughts and his composure. Patterson told him he could not tell anyone until after his announcement, and then agreed that he could tell only his beloved mother, Jemita Pryce.

Unkind people said the appointment was a gimmick ahead of the 2002 general elections which the PNP would win and secure a historic fourth consecutive term. But Morris was not troubled. He believed in the two-party system and people's right to their opinion. His remarkable climb to national leadership had not stopped him being good friends with political adversaries like Bobby Montague, the mayor of Port Maria. He still remembered how in his youth he would shout for 'Joshua' while his childhood friend, Richard Creary would shout for 'Papa Eddie'.

On the PATH to progress

"I have spent three wonderful years in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security," Morris testifies. "Working with Danny Buchanan, followed by Horace Dalley, the current minister, has been a great pleasure." He describes Dalley as a man of ideas and very energetic. In the general ministerial team, he is very close friends with Dean Peart, the land and environment minister.

In his ministerial role, Morris pays close attention to the key PATH programme which means Programme of Advancement through Health and Education. He took over when the programme was new and has seen it grow to cover some 180,000 beneficiaries regarded as society's most vulnerable individuals. These include the disabled, the elderly, pregnant and lactating women and children between age 0 and 17 in the low-income bracket. Morris is pushing to reach a total of 236,000 beneficiaries by year-end, under acting project manager, Trevor Smith.

And as for the disabled, they have a man in court. He is keen about his responsibility for that community, pointing to the promulgation of a National Disabilities Act to secure the rights of the disabled. He expects to wrap up in short order the relevant amendments to the Road Traffic Act so that the deaf can drive legally on Jamaican roads. "I am getting a more sensitive approach to the disabled in Jamaica," he says, noting Kingston mayor Desmond McKenzie's drive to establish special parking spaces for people with disabilities; government's insistence on more ramps to give greater access to state buildings, like the National Stadium which Vin Lawrence renovated for the 2002 World Junior Games.

"I was extremely proud the other day when the United Nations Development Programme Report showed Jamaica ranking among the top five countries in the Americas in terms of the treatment of people with disabilities," he can't resist the boast.

Morris's staff, led by permanent secretary, Alvin McIntosh, at the ministry know they are working with a gifted man, sightless but extremely insightful. And he is proud of them. "They'll tell you that I am a stickler for detail and they know I get upset over missed deadlines because I am extremely anxious to get assistance to the most needy."

Seeing through a computer

Senator Morris draws on the wonders of modern computer technology to aid his daily existence. Utilising the JAWS screen reading programme which speaks electronically, he is able to receive and send e-mail messages (femorris@cwjamaica.com), browse the web and write documents. But he can do other things not expected of the blind. I haven't done it in a while but I can ride a bicycle. I once towed a friend who steered," he boasts again.

He introduced the Black Spear Football Club based in Bailey's Vale, St Mary, where he was born, noting they won the parish division one competition in 2002. But lack of funds is threatening the future of the club. A few hapless domino players have tasted six-love at the hands of this sports and domino enthusiast. And he enjoys going to the movies occasionally with his fiancée. Most weekends, he spends time at his farm in St Mary and religiously attends the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Port Maria.

At some future point, we'll pick up the Floyd Morris story again. For there are many colourful chapters yet to be written in this unfolding saga of courage and determination.


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