Beatrice Leonard may be almost entirely blind, but the advocate for people with disabilities sees things about the Caribbean that most other tourists miss.
For example, Leonard said Friday, people living with disabilities in Antigua and St. Lucia do not have their government’s support from legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Anything that anyone there is doing for disabled people, they’re doing it out of the kindness of their hearts,” Leonard, 63, said when her Celebrity cruise ship docked in Charlotte Amalie.
St. Thomas was the last stop before Leonard and her German Shepherd guide dog, Chavez, returned to their Chicago home.
Kathy Levick, a trainer from the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, also joined Leonard, along with crew members from Leonard’s weekly podcast and television program, Travelers with Disabilities Having Fun. Leonard is a longtime radio host who worked 18 years at Chicago Radio Information Service, among other gigs.
After starting their cruise in Puerto Rico, the troupe stopped in Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Martin and St. Thomas. Along the way, Leonard met with disability-rights advocates who told her about the struggles they face in the absence of government-mandated rights and help.
“If your kid has a disability, they’ll do something – but you’re basically on your own,” Leonard said from a bench in Havensite.
At about this time, a sunburned man and woman approached.
“Do you know where Hooters is?” the woman asked.
“Ssssh!” the man interrupted. “Can’t you see she’s blind?”
It seems tourists may be problematic as well.
As the pair darted off in search of short shorts and hot wings, Leonard went on to talk about how many residents with disabilities on Barbados, St. Lucia, and Antigua find it difficult to lead an independent life.
Poor infrastructure, such as a lack of ramps, or the prevalence of broken sidewalks bordered by dangerous ditches, makes it nearly impossible to leave home alone, Levick said.
“The sidewalks are really bad for sighted people, let alone someone with visual impairment,” Levick said.
Leonard, who began losing her sight at 22, said she is grateful to have lived with guide dogs for nearly 40 years. Besides being super-soft, gentle, and sweet, the 3 ½-year-old Chavez gives Leonard the freedom to travel, go to the store, and take a quiet walk on her own.
Leonard and Levick did not encounter any other guide dogs on this Caribbean cruise. With large numbers of stray dogs roaming the streets, Leonard said places such as St. Lucia and Antigua seemed inhospitable to guide dogs, who need to be left alone to do their jobs.
Because Friday’s skies were gray, Leonard’s crew decided against going to the beach and opted to check out Miracle on Main Street instead. It was not Leonard’s first time to St. Thomas, but as she walked freely around Havensite with Chavez – an experience that’s much more difficult to have in less guide-dog friendly ports – she seemed grateful to be back on American soil.
While there is still work that needs to be done here, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act puts the territory ahead of many other Caribbean destinations when it comes to making life easier for people with disabilities.
“When you think about the U.S., you can get angry if you want to – but at least we have the Act,” Leonard said, just before she and Chavez went off in search of ice cream.