How Senate President Floyd Morris overcame the horrible sentence of blindness

Monday, May 20, 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 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:

Senator Floyd Morris: Hope and courage in a world of darkness

In a world of constant darkness, where hope is a rare commodity and cynicism always just inches below the surface, how deep must one reach into life's entrails to extract the courage to become a leader among sighted men? Or, what manner of man is this Floyd Morris that he can so overwhelmingly overcome the horrible sentence of blindness and turn his life into the ultimate inspiration to a generation of people made disabled by unkind accidents of fate?

These are questions, it seems, that are best directed at the Creator of life Himself. And Floyd Morris lives by the genius of that creation, his existence incontrovertible evidence of the goodness of man and an indisputable fact that in the hearts of many Jamaicans flow copiously the fabled milk of human kindness.

Blind at 17 on the brink of emerging manhood, Morris would have to overcome dreadful anger, depression, postponed ambitions, the ignorance of people who knew not how to deal with blindness and the threat of yielding to the doubting voice that whispered 'it's over for you, give up!' But once he had found the courage in his heart to go on, he blazed a trail that is one for the annals of Jamaican and disabled community history.

He'll speak forever about the Mico College years, transforming the naysayers into believers; the challenges of being a student leader and later lecturer at the University of the West Indies where his intellect was nurtured, and where he grilled Prime Minister PJ Patterson at a student meeting, not knowing that that fiery encounter would set him on a path to national leadership. In time, Patterson himself would name him as senator and junior minister for social security.

Not long after going blind from unyielding glaucoma, it was to the land that Morris turned to regain his sense of worth, becoming a poultry farmer of no mean order and recalling how he learnt to walk among the young chicks without crushing them underfoot. He'd learn to adopt in many other areas too, as the twists and turns of his life moved relentlessly towards greatness.

Born to exceptional destiny

In Bailey's Vale, two miles out of Port Maria, St Mary, Jemita Pryce, a lowly dress-maker, gave birth to Floyd Emerson Morris, born to exceptional destiny, on July 23, 1969. He was one of eight children - five boys and three girls. His father was Lloyd Morris, a fireman. His siblings are: Ralston McNish; Conrad McNish; Clive McNish; Clive Nanco; KC Whyte; Glasmine McNish; Diane Campbell and Claudia Edwards.

There was a quiet vibrancy to Bailey's Vale, lying on the outskirts of the St Mary capital. Morris came to know that his family was very popular in the community. He, in particular, stood out for the size of his large navel with which he played while sucking his finger, and 'bow legs' that suggested he would never walk properly. His mother pampered him, using 'nipple bottles' to feed him with, even at basic school -- the one run by Joyce Eccleston. The bow legs eventually straightened out, without surgery, he remarks.

Morris went to the Port Maria Primary School where as a bright student, he enjoyed the love and affection of his teachers. Among them, Janet Rose-Bryan -- now with the Social Development Commission in St Mary -- stood out for the attention she gave him. She later taught him in Grade Five and at the St Mary High where she became the guidance counsellor.

In Grade six, he was placed in the class taught by Miss Morgan, renowned at the time for her successes in the Common Entrance Examination which has since been replaced by the Grade Six Achievement Test, or GSAT. All the brightest students were in Miss Morgan's class, he recalls. They included Richard Creary, now deputy mayor of Port Maria and his siblings; the children of the Chungs, a business family; Colin Davis who is currently doing his PhD at Indiana State University; his cousin, Lt Col Daniel Pryce and Leslie-Ann Thompson who is a director at the SuperClubs and daughter of the principal, L S Thompson.

Those were days of innocence in Bailey's Vale which seemed oblivious to the viciously tribalised world of city politics of the 1970s to 1980s. Morris remembers that he and his childhood friends argued about politics but never fought. For example, "I was shouting for 'Joshua' (People's National Party's Michael Manley), and Richard Creary was shouting for 'Papa Eddie' (Jamaica Labour Party's Edward Seaga). But we walked home together afterwards," he says, contrasting then and now.

Bobby Montague took set on me

After Common Entrance, he went to St Mary High in 1981 where he discovered a love for Spanish under Mrs Pickersgill. At school, he used to have "serious run-ins" with Bobby Montague, now mayor, admitting that "I was very argumentative and willing to defend my beliefs". On one occasion, Montague who was deputy head boy, tackled Morris about wearing white bobby socks against the school rules. Morris insisted the prefect had no jurisdiction over him off the school compound and "he took set on me after that, even giving me toilet paper to write lines saying 'I must learn to behave myself'". It had nothing to do with politics, since at the time neither knew the other's preferences.

Morris got into a lot of trouble being so argumentative and sometimes mischievous. He took on a teacher for punishing the boys as well when it was the girls who were behaving badly and was dispatched to the grade supervisor for discipline. He remembers the solidarity among classmates when one day, a boy in his class used a rubber band as a missile launcher to shoot a prefect. Nobody talked and so they were all sent to the principal, EU Cargill who turned them over to Captain Johnson, the chemistry teacher and disciplinarian. Johnson caned them "in front of the most beautiful girls in the school, among them some I was fooling around with".

Going blind

After Pickersgill left the school, Morris transferred his love from Spanish to history and other arts subjects. Up to now, he had been enjoying school at St Mary High, playing football and cricket and generally being a sports enthusiast. His grades were good and he was always among the best students. Based on his performance he was promoted to Grade Nine. Here now Morris would begin to go blind, a gradual process that brought emotional pain and depression as he underwent a life-changing event for which no one or nothing could have prepared him.

This was 1983. He had just turned 14. Returning to school after the long summer break, he took his seat, as usual, at the back of the class. For the first time, he realised that he was not seeing the blackboard well from there. His sight was blurred. He spoke to the guidance counsellor who referred him to an optometrist. He recommended glasses, noting that something was wrong with his right eye. But the problem persisted. He was then referred to the University Hospital of the West Indies where he was hit with the cruel news. They had discovered he had glaucoma, the ravaging eye disease which is among the most responsible for blindness in the world. It was hard to take.

"It slowed me down considerably. I could no longer play cricket, football or the other games I loved," Morris relates. "When I started to have sight problems, the teachers did not know how to deal with it. However, they put me to sit in the front of the class so that I could see the blackboard better." He remembers his form teacher at Grade Ten, Lorraine Gillis, now a chartered accountant with the Jamaica Deposit Insurance Corporation, and with whom he has remained great friends. She worked patiently with him and she was wonderful, he recalls.

He chose business subjects, having long cherished an ambition to become a chartered accountant himself. But as his sight worsened, he was forced to give up typing and writing shorthand. By the time he reached Grade Eleven, his performance was being seriously affected. This was CXC year. In his most dismal performance to date, he failed to pass even one subject. "I could not even complete paper two of the exams," he recounts. With no subjects, he left St Mary High to a future that seemed completely blank and desperate. Depression swept over him like an angry tide. Where goest thou now, Floyd Morris? was the obvious question. And the tragedy was that he had no answer. Not immediately anyway.

Morris remembers 1986 to 1990 as "the most traumatic period of my life". His father by then had migrated to Canada, leaving his mother to fend for herself and the children. It was to his brother, Ralston, a public health inspector that the family had to look for sustenance. His mother was getting very little work now. She had been a big supporter of the PNP and was used to getting work from the parish council and the Member of Parliament Horace Clarke. In the 1980s, a new party was in power and the work dried up.

A bad time to be going blind

At 17, the powerful years of early manhood were emerging but Morris' life was in recession. His teenage joys had turned to sorrow, as he watched his friends and classmates move on to college and other endeavours. It was a bad time to be going blind. Knowing his own potential that would now be unrealised, he brooded, then became aggressive, getting into fights all the time, particularly with his nieces and nephews who were staying with his mother.

One of the last things of note that he would see was Hurricane Gilbert in September 1988. Then one day, finally, in 1989, everything went black and he was fully blind at 20. "I noticed that I could not see anything before me. There was a glimmer of light but I could not see anybody's face," Morris recalls of that tragic moment. All the treatment he had been getting at the University Hospital and from several other doctors, including all the reputed eye specialists, was to no avail. The glaucoma refused to respond to heavy medication or laser operations, and nothing they did could control the pressure in the eyes.

Morris' anger and depression knew no bounds. But he reached inside for something he did not know was there.

"I recalled my pastor telling me that 'when God put a full stop, you don't dare put a comma'. You don't always know what he wants for you," says Morris. Looking forward, he decided that he would like to raise some chickens. Even family members laughed at him. However, a devoted paternal aunt, Fay Gaynor, gave him money for 50 chickens. The man he asked to buy the chicks gave him only 33 but he worked with that and made money which he saved with the credit union.

"One of the good things about the human body is that it is designed with many coping mechanisms. For example, if you lose your hearing, your sight is activated and vice versa. My sense of touch heightened and I was able to design the coop so that I would not crush the young chicks. I learnt how to work with them and expanded the business."

Horace Clarke returns to power

In 1989, the PNP returned to government, with Horace Clarke again becoming the MP for Central St Mary. Clarke had known young Floyd for many years. His mother was one of his strongest supporters. His admiration for the young man had grown. Despite his blindness, he had gone into poultry farming and just needed a little more help to expand his operation. Clarke remembered how he himself had gone into politics as a young man many years before... just for this very thing. He decided he would support this story of courage and hope that was the life of Floyd Emerson Morris.

With the support he received from the MP, Morris was up to 200 chickens now. As his pride swelled with the chirping of the birds, he made a pledge to himself. Never would he support the kind of tribalism that had thrown his mother out of work in the 1980s. "My family was the victim of that politics and I vowed never would I engage in it." To bear out this pledge, Morris has known JLP supporters among his farmhands. "I am sure there are JLP people who could say the same of PNP." His mother now operates the chicken farm, while he has 27 acres under pepper, pumpkin and sweet potato, mainly for export, employing up to 10 people at peak.

Dorraine Samuels and the JSB

During the time Morris was fighting his depression, he found solace and comfort in an unlikely source -- the radio. He listened all the time to the reassuring voice of Dorraine Samuels on RJR. "I fell in love with radio and through Dorraine Samuels I saw the power and majesty of radio. You can become a friend of someone you don't even know. I listened to her every morning," he confesses. On a particularly hard morning, Samuels featured the Jamaica Society for the Blind (JSB).

Morris was so influenced by the broadcast that he decided he no longer wanted to become a chartered accountant. Now he would be a radio announcer. He called up Samuels on the phone and she told him that there were other blind people who worked in radio, like the top-rated Patrick Lafayette currently with KOOl-FM, so he could do it. From the broadcast on the JSB, he learnt of the possibilities for gaining skills he could use to better manage as a blind person. And after overcoming the initial fear of coming to Kingston - with encouragement from his mother and brother, Ralston who was now living in the capital city -- he turned up at the Society for the Blind in September 1991 to begin the first tentative steps towards a new life.

At the JSB, he made arrangements to study to qualify himself to go to university. He learnt to read and write Braille, becoming the fastest learner when he completed the training in five weeks. It marked a new lease on life. The Braille instrument and language were developed by the French military in World War 11 when they needed to be able to communicate in the dark. It is based on a system of (six) raised dots configured to form symbols for letters and numbers. The fingers are used to feel the dots. When the dark clouds of war dissipated, Braille was adapted as a revolutionary tool for the blind, representing the dawn of a new quality of life for those who could no longer see. Morris was now a new man. "I was so excited by my new skills," he discloses.

Campion says sorry, we can't take you

At the JSB, he was struck by the enormous kindness of a great many people he was now meeting. He remembers blind people like Conrad Harris, Wendy Williams, Barbara McKoy, Ann-Marie McDonald and Inkswel Douglas, among others who used to attend the JSB to study or have volunteers read for them. Harris was attending the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (Carimac) at UWI and Morris reasoned that if he could do it, so could he.

Suddenly, life seemed to make sense all over again. Morris could now envision a future based on a productive life in which he could pursue a profession and career and make himself a man. He needed not rely for his every need to be fulfilled by someone else. On the horizon, new hope shone bright.

With this attitude, he approached the evening school at the Campion College to do some CXCs. The co-ordinator at the time looked him over and thought to himself: "is this guy really serious?" Wasting no time, he bluntly told Morris that the children there were very bright and he would be unable to keep up with them because of his blindness. Sorry, he could not accept him. It was a crushing blow to Morris. He had all these plans to do so much and was brimming with enthusiasm. And now this. He could not understand why this cruel obstacle was being put in his way. Was this the end of his dreams?

Tomorrow: The blind wonder is a leader of men

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