Andrew Fitt with his favorite art books, photographed at Medulla Art Gallery. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

Originally published in the Trinidad Express , December 11, 2017

I’m 44. That’s only six years away from 50, and a lot of things have happened in nearly a half century since I was born in a hospital on the island of St. Lucia, blue in the face from having the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck.That small act would dictate how I would live from that moment on. The brain can’t function without a readily available oxygen supply, and when oxygen is scarce, brain damage will occur.

In my case, Cerebral Palsy was the outcome, which would affect my motor functions, plus muscle control. Walking and talking, two things that come as natural as breathing, would prove to be challenging for some time to come for me. The good thing about challenges is that they focus the mind and spirit of the individual and those who surround them.

My parents were young, having little or no idea what raising a child with a disability was like, or what it would entail. Nobody really thinks about such things when they’re just starting their lives together. You just plan on going to the hospital and the delivery of a healthy child. That’s what everyone thinks. But for my parents those very expectations changed after the doctor got the cord mess sorted out.

I was going to be set some tasks to accomplish in my life, and my parents would be pivotal in helping me by figuring out how to achieve success. My parents decided to take me to the States and to Canada to consult with various doctors and therapists about my condition, picking up advice and techniques over time that they would implement for years to strengthen my muscles and limbs, improve my coordination, help me with my balance, and a number of other things that needed to be addressed.

A lot of days would be spent with my mother carrying me everywhere like a bag of groceries, while doing ten thousand other things. Until one day at 9 years old I finally was able to stand up and take my first steps on my own.

Andrew Fitt with his favorite art books, photographed at Medulla Art Gallery by Mark Lyndersay.

Talking came earlier than walking, or at least that’s what I think I can recall now. My speech therapy sessions continued for a long time until I could carry on understandable conversations with people. I place greater value on communication than on mobility, because one can actually accomplish more with words, than with taking a single step.

Being able to talk and express myself as clearly as I can, has been extremely helpful in demonstrating to others that my physical condition has nothing whatsoever to do with my mental faculties.

All of those things occurred after my parents moved to Trinidad in the hope that life would present greater opportunities for me. They were right. I attended school at the Princess Elizabeth Center, sat Common Entrance in 1998 and passed for Fatima.

I made friends that have always been there when I needed them. I’ve celebrated passing O Levels, and getting into International Fine Arts College in 1996 and earning an Associate Degree in 3D Animation. When I returned, I launched my art career and had multiple solo exhibitions from 2000 onwards. My parents made a wise decision by moving to Trinidad nearly forty years ago.

I grew up with all the hopes and dreams of many young men, like being able to drive, getting a good job, finding a wife and starting family of my own. I really wanted all of those things and more. I still want those things and short of death, there’s no way I’m not getting some, if not all eventually.

I can’t make people accept me and my disability on my own, society doesn’t work like that. For such change to take place, a group effort has to be made. If people aren’t educated about the different physical and mental challenges by the very individuals, and family members, who live with them daily, then no amount of focusing of oneself will be enough.

The average person on the road, in the mall, at the cinema, whether they’re a customer or an employee is unlikely to know the difference between Cerebral Palsy and drunkenness. I know this from personal experience. Or even more distressing, some think I’m mentally incompetent. I’ve been openly laughed at, mocked, insulted, ridiculed, and completely ignored by every creed and race.

At times I just let it go and move on. At other times, I’ve been known to fight back, both physically and verbally. After dealing with ignorance on a regular basis, something’s got to give one way or another, sooner or later.

The bright side is that there are more people willing to open themselves up to learning about physical and mental disorders. That happens when the public is educated and is encouraged to engage with others different from themselves. Twenty years ago in Trinidad, the average person didn’t know anything about the internet, books were the primary source of information.

I also think that employers should make more of an effort to hire persons with special needs, to actually offer them careers, instead of just jobs. This builds self esteem and confidence in the individual and allows them to feel like a true member of society. Everyone wants to be treated with dignity and respect, especially people like me. I don’t want a handout from people in the street. It sends the wrong message.

All I’ve ever wanted is the opportunity to be myself, and live the way I desire. I’m not asking for you to bend over backwards to accommodate me, to fawn over me, and by no means do I want you to pity me. All that stuff does is insult me. Love and respect me for who I am, not for my disability, is all that I truly want at the end of the day.

The production of the Lions segment of the Lioness Project series, highlighting the experiences of ten men in the disability field, is supported by the Cause an Effect Organisation, the Massy Foundation and A Very Special Disabilities Forum.