The Archive's Twisted Tree Logo

Disability Equity and Disaster Response in the Bahamas

Erin Brown in conversation with Julia Watts Belser

July 1, 2022
A black and while image of a short blonde-haired black female who is an above-the-knee amputee. She is sitting on the ground with her eyes closed, with her right leg bent with right hand touching her leg. On her left, she hugs her prosthetic leg, resting her head on the socket.

Erin Brown (she/her) is a disability activist and organizer colleagues call a “one-woman powerhouse of advocacy for the disability community in the Bahamas.” A celebrated Paralympic triathlete and an advocate for community-based support for people with disabilities in the Bahamas, Brown is a disability inclusion consultant and a community organizer who works to improve disabled people’s access to health care and education. Spurred in part by the tremendous devastation Hurricane Dorian caused in 2019, she has become a leading advocate for disability-inclusive disaster preparedness and for disability equity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Julia:  Erin, you’ve been a powerful voice calling attention to the way that disabled people have been left out of a lot of official responses to the pandemic. Can you tell us more about the situation you’ve been facing in the Bahamas?

Erin:  When COVID hit, there was no dialogue about disability. The government’s emergency orders immediately stopped delivery services, hired transportation, and healthcare providers who were doing in-home care. All of that was immediately cut off. 

I was blown away. I was like how? How is it possible that you go ahead and create these orders, without even taking into consideration the disability community? It’s not even COVID that’s going to kill these individuals, it’s the emergency orders.

Julia:  It’s so upsetting to see the way that disability so often falls through the cracks. Those emergency orders that you’re mentioning are a striking example of that, because they imposed strict limits on who could provide in-home support services. You have to be a certified medical professional, right? Why has that been so devastating for the disability community? 

Erin:  What they didn’t take into consideration is that healthcare for our community is practically non-existent. Unless you can afford to pay for a live-in nurse or for a care provider to come to your house, you rely on your neighbors, you rely on your parents, you rely on your children, you rely on your spouse. So now you say that my neighbor, who has been my caregiver, can no longer come across the street to check on me?  

We need to have the conversation about how to develop disability-sensitive safety protocols for COVID-19. We need better guidelines for caregivers. It’s not okay to say, “You can’t go and check on somebody.” The reality is, yes you can. But you have to do it safely. You have to adhere to physical distancing.

Julia:  It’s crucial for officials and public health authorities to recognize how frequently people rely on informal caregiving and informal support networks—and how important these informal systems are for people’s well-being and survival. If you’re only paying attention to the work professional providers do, you’re missing an essential reality on the ground.

Erin:  Exactly. There was a certification process with the Ministry of Health, where caregivers had to come in to be certified. Then they’ll approve you and put you on a list, so that you can go and engage in these services again. But the people who’re providing care are neighbors, they are children! How are you certifying a five year old? They are not medical professionals. They did not go to school for this.

Disabled people often need their companions to assist with everyday tasks. But COVID has made that all more complicated. We had to fight for a visually impaired parent who needed their child’s help to wash their clothes. The wash house wouldn’t allow the child to assist. Because of COVID restrictions, no children were allowed inside. The parent had to enter alone.

We also have to recognize that invisible disabilities, like being deaf or blind, present themselves differently. Shopkeepers and service providers often don’t recognize that. They’re looking at it like, “You don’t have a wheelchair, you’re not using a cane, you’re not disabled.”

Julia:  That’s a really important reminder. It’s so important to realize that disability manifests in many different ways, most of which aren’t easy to perceive with a glance. So many people think that disability is a rare experience, a marginal experience. But your work is grounded in a very different recognition: Disability affects all of us.

Erin:  Disability intersects life. You can’t run away from it. High-risk persons, people with comorbidities, they’re all a part of the disabled community. Whether by incident, accident, health condition or advancing age…you are going to enter the demographics of the disability community. So why run away?

Julia:  I find that people are often hesitant to claim disability as a part of their own experience.  Disability is such a stigmatized category that people think, “Oh, that’s not me! I don’t want to be associated with that negative thing.”

Erin:  After Hurricane Dorian hit, we heard from a lot of people saying “I need food vouchers.” So we asked, “Are you a person living with a disability?” As people responded, we started to realize that many people don’t recognize themselves as having a disability. I had a person who called on behalf of their child, but when I asked, they said their child doesn’t have a disability. And I say, “Okay, what seems to be the specific needs for the child?” By the time they’re done laying out those needs, I’m scratching my head. I’m like, “No, that qualifies as a disability.”

We talk about disability as something that’s separate and apart. That’s why we’re dealing with this now. But why are we hiding? It’s as if we’re saying, “I’m not going to cross this line because if I cross this line I’m disabled.”

If we recognized disability as a part of our identity, it would not feel so negative. We would recognize disability as a part of life. Just like we would say Black, female, Baptist, or whatever…we need to ensure that disability is also acknowledged. Disability is an identity, and we need you to understand that, period.

Julia:  Like you, I recognize disability as a vital part of my identity. For me, that’s also laid the groundwork for a powerful recognition of being in community with other disabled people and having shared political aims. At the same time, it’s also vital to help folks recognize the incredible diversity within disability communities.  

Erin:  Exactly. You and I are both wheelchair users, but our lived experiences are different. I have a choice about whether to use my wheelchair, or my crutches, or my prosthetic leg depending on what I’m doing and what resources I have at hand. My experience does not discredit yours, one is not higher than the other. They’re both valid. 

Everyone who can look at me sees that I’m missing a leg. They assume that I’m just an amputee and that’s it. But I am a young woman with varying disabilities. You can’t look at a person and assume you know what’s going on with them. How do you know that I’m not hearing impaired?

When the pandemic hit, we started to have all these emergency meetings talking about what’s going on: the numbers, the protocols, the guidelines, what you can and cannot do. But there was no ASL interpretation, there was no closed captioning.

Julia:  It’s such a familiar story. Failure to have plans in place for communication access means that Deaf and disabled people don’t get timely information during a crisis. We know that having access to information saves lives. In order to ensure that critical information reaches more people, we need multiple modes of access–not one-size-fits-all solutions.

Erin:  A lot of Deaf folks in the Bahamas don’t know ASL. So if you’re saying, “I’ll just provide an ASL interpreter,” it’s not enough. People are not getting the information. You need to also engage closed captioning. That’s a basic and fundamental form of access.

Our community must understand that when we’re talking about disability—no single one of us owns that word. I cannot advocate only on the basis of my own lived experiences, because then we’re only thinking about one type of disability. The framework we need engages the full spectrum of disability. 

Julia:  Erin, one of the things that really moves me about your approach is the commitment you have to thinking more holistically about what people need. You work really hard to take people’s actual lived realities into account when you offer services and support. Can you share some stories about what that looks like in practice?

Erin:  Social services expect people to call, but there are so many persons who don’t have access to electricity or regular phone service, or who don’t have any minutes left on their cell phone. How are they supposed to call social services?

In the Bahamas, handheld devices are very prominent. Even though people may not have a plan that provides talk and text, they are often able to get free internet on their phones. So this is what we did: We made it very easy for people to contact us. We primarily use WhatsApp, because it’s an app that so many people use. As long as you have internet, you can communicate through WhatsApp.

Julia:  So you became an intermediary, right? You took those WhatsApp calls and messages, and you got people plugged into social services.

Erin:  That’s right. Not all of the agencies were open to it, but when it worked, it was powerful. There was one social worker who reached out to me on Facebook. She said, “If you hear from anybody who is not getting access, reach out to me, and I will make it happen.” So I reached out to her. I’d be like “Okay, this is a blind individual. This is a Deaf individual, who you can only text. You can only use WhatsApp with this person. Don’t pick up the phone and call that person, it’s not going to work. You’ll have to use text to communicate and gather the information.”

Julia:  It’s such a powerful reminder that access takes time and care—that it takes time to make those connections, to figure out what a person actually needs. Large-scale disaster response often doesn’t end up taking those lived realities into account, especially when it comes to disability.

Erin:  Let me tell you another story, from my work with the Red Cross. When the Red Cross brings a food parcel to members of our community, sometimes people say: “I don’t want that! I don’t eat that! Why would you give me that?”

So some Red Cross responders state, “They’re ungrateful! They don’t need our help!

But I say, “Listen, when you’re giving help to someone, they have the right to refuse. They also have the right to say what works for them and what doesn’t.” 

You’re dealing with a community that should not be eating canned foods. They probably have health conditions that mean they can’t eat that corned beef, they can’t drink that cream. So when you show up with this stuff, they look at it like, “How am I supposed to survive if I can’t eat any of it?” 

You can’t take it as an insult. You need to receive that information, take it back, and figure out what can be done. Calling them ungrateful is a blatant lie. They are not ungrateful. They are telling you what does not work for them. At the end of the day, isn’t that what you need? You need to know what works and what doesn’t work.

Julia:   I’m still sitting with that story—with the assumption that people have an obligation to be grateful for whatever they receive, even if it doesn’t meet their needs. It makes me think about the politics of charity, about the power dynamics that are so often at play when we give and receive aid. You’re pushing for a different approach.

Erin:  I think that’s a crucial thing that we have missed in the disability community. We have not been taught how to self-advocate. We have been told that self-advocacy is complaining, that we’re whining or being ungrateful. But there is bravery in speaking up.  

The system has been designed to hurt persons with disabilities. To tell them that they are less than, to tell them what they can’t do. We have to actively address that. The most basic things are access, inclusion, and opportunities. But representation and visibility are also important. I want us to take a stand, to have a voice, to say, “We are here and we are done being overlooked.”

Julia:  Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. And I think the work you’re doing to advocate for disabled people during crisis situations is a crucial part of that. We’re living in a world where disaster has become a part of our new normal. Climate change means we’re facing more frequent and more intense storms, a reality that’s especially intense in the Bahamas. How do you reckon with that?

Erin:  Disaster is coming. I’m sorry to inform anyone who thinks they can stop it. It’s coming. It’s time to take the steps to be prepared. Let’s get relief systems in place that include everyone.  

St. Vincent just had a volcano erupt. How do we get support? How do we invest in infrastructure? How do we get our preparedness policies in place for next time? Because the volcano is not going to move. 

We can’t just keep putting bandaids on the problem. Not this time. We need to invest now. Just like any other conversation, sustainability is about investment. When it comes to our communities with disabilities, we need the same approach. It is not just about donating and leaving it alone, it is about investing and sustaining, building and growing. 

This is my message: It doesn’t matter where I live. I am still in the 15%—the over 15%—over one billion people in this world living with a disability. We are not disposable.

We need to engage. We need to be more visible. We need to lead this fight. Because the public, our societies, our leaders, our policymakers…they don’t know. We have to be brave enough to stand authentically within our disability identity. We have to lift up each other’s voices. No matter where we are, we have to band together. We are a tribe. We are a family.


Erin Brown and Julia Watts Belser, “Disability Equity and Disaster Response in the Bahamas  – Erin Brown in conversation with Julia Watts Belser.” Disability and Climate Change: A Public Archive Project. July 1, 2022. 

Curated and edited by Eliza Bruze, Veronica Campanie, Madi Dwyer, Zannat Faria, Serena Korkmaz, and Julia Watts Belser 

Photo credit: Donn Thompson / Dracinc

Image description: A black and white image of a short blonde-haired female who is an above-the-knee amputee. She is sitting on the ground with her eyes closed, with her right leg bent with right hand touching her leg. On her left, she hugs her prosthetic leg, resting her head on the socket.

You’re welcome to use, share, and distribute this material freely, for any non-commercial purpose.  It’s fine to use only an excerpt, but please don’t otherwise change or modify the content. We kindly ask you to include a citation and a link back to the archive whenever you use the material.