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‘She was not afraid to challenge authority’ Remembering the legacy of an activist for the disabled

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Activist Margaret Carter has left a void that has never been filled.

That was the word from her friends and family twenty years after her death. Today she would have celebrated her 74th birthday.

She was the founder and President of the Bermuda Physically Handicapped Association (BPHA) and advocated for people in Bermuda with disabilities to have access to buildings, services and education. She was also a human rights campaigner and a writer.

“Margaret was talented, witty and irreverent,” recalled friend and journalist Meredith Ebbin. “She was not afraid to challenge authority. She led the campaign for people with disabilities to receive anti-discrimination protection in the Human Rights Acts, among other things.”

She was born with muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease that causes muscle weakness. Her mother took her to New York as a toddler to seek medical treatment, but by age 11, she was permanently wheelchair-bound. She attended Mount St Agnes Academy, because it was the only school willing to accept her as a student.

She was a lot more fortunate than other Bermudians with disabilities in her era, as they were usually kept at home or worse, housed in a psychiatric hospital such as St Brendans (now the Mid Atlantic Wellness Institute).

Ms Ebbin believed that it was her education that allowed her to so successfully challenge the system.

“She was a powerful advocate for Bermudians with disabilities, mental and physical, and her death left a void that has yet to be replaced,” said Ms Ebbin.

She thought Miss Carter’s legacy today includes the mainstreaming of children with disabilities into the regular school system, Summerhaven a residence for the handicapped, ramps on Hamilton city street and even the elevator in the Bermuda National Library.

“Margaret could only use the ground floor of the library in her lifetime because there was no elevator,” said Ms Ebbin. Miss Carter did not technically found Summerhaven, but it was arguably the direct result of her pushing for a residence where people with physically disabilities could live independently.

“Without her insistence that such a home was needed, we would never have had a Summerhaven,” said Ms Ebbin.

Miss Carter shared the same birthday as her good friend, the late Dame Lois Browne-Evans, and they would always make a point to wish each other happy birthday. They shared an interest in ending oppression in the community.

Miss Carter was a member of the Anti-Apartheid Coalition (ANC) in Bermuda founded in 1987 along with Ron Lightbourne, Glenn Fubler, and Canon Thomas Nisbett.

Mr Fubler said: “Initially, it was difficult getting people on board with the ANC. We started a fundraising effort to send funds to South Africa. We put on a couple of events and they weren’t that successful. Margaret got a group of disabled people involved in a wheel-a-thon from St George to Hamilton on a Sunday afternoon. This particular Sunday there was torrential rain and I had the flu so I couldn’t go out. Margaret’s group came out in that bad weather. That image of them travelling in the rain galvanised the movement in Bermuda. It was a real take off point.”

He recalled when anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Trevor Huddleston visited Bermuda. He had been a mentor to people like Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.

“During his time here, Margaret had a small bus,” said Mr Fubler. “He saw the Island by way of Margaret’s bus.”

Mr Fubler said her commitments went way beyond the disabled community to wherever human rights were violated.

“Her integrity and commitment were exemplary,” said Mr Fubler.

Lowdru Robinson was Director of the Ministry of Community Affairs in 1990 at the time when Margaret was Chairperson of the BPHA. Working together they brought about Access Awareness Week in Bermuda, which was celebrated in Bermuda for many years.

“One project that I recall with fondness is our attempt to have City Hall made accessible for wheelchairs,” said Mr Robinson. “Mayor Dismont agreed to our request to spend one working day in a wheelchair as he carried out his duties.”

The result of this project was that a ramp and an elevator were installed in City Hall.

“One of my proudest moments was pushing Margaret in her wheelchair up the new ramp when it was officially opened by Mayor Dismont,” said Mr Robinson.

He said he was disappointed when the Ministry was unable to include people with disabilities in the Human Rights Act 1981.

“However, I took comfort from Margaret’s grit and determination,” he said. “Undaunted, and with her positive attitude, she resolved that she would continue to lobby for an amendment until it was achieved. And today, thanks to her hard work, it has been achieved.”

Miss Carter was also a passionate writer and loved making crafts and being creative. Her good friend and fellow writer, Ronald Lightbourne, said both her home Rothesay, on Mount Hill, Pembroke and the offices of the BPHA at Prospect were put at the disposal of creative and political activities.

“Writers met at Rothesay, included novelists Angela Barry and Brian Burland, journalist Meredith Ebbin, fiction writers Rawle Frederick, Nelda Simons, the late Joanne Pratt; and film maker Errol Williams,” said Mr Lightbourne. “They all were friends who visited and took part in creative activities, particularly Writers’ Marathons. She took the sending out of my poems in hand and had an uncanny knack of choosing the right magazine for them.”

Miss Carter and Mr Lightbourne co-wrote the 1989 road show We Are You and contributed to the Bermuda Writers’ Collective book of short stories ‘Palmetto Wine,’ which was published in 1990.

Mr Lightbourne’s daughter Jessica Lightbourne spent a lot of time with Miss Carter and called her “a gift from the Great Creator”.

“There is so much left to accomplish in the community with respect to access for people with all types of disabilities,” said Ms Lightbourne. “I believe that people are just not aware. Bermudians are more conscious now than they have ever been about Bermuda’s history of racial exclusion and white privilege. I believe this is due to more and more discourse in the public domain with respect to these inequities, however uncomfortable or inconvenient they might be to address.

“I believe that many people who have not been labelled ‘disabled’ do not recognise their ‘able bodied privilege’.”

Miss Carter was known to say that “we are all just able-bodied temporarily”.

“Most of us are not conscious of the barrier a flight of stairs at a restaurant or store or government office might become, and we do not think about intellectual accessibility and inclusiveness as much as we could,” said Ms Lightbourne.

Miss Carter died from complications of a stroke just after Boxing Day in 1992. She was 53 years old.

For several years Access Awareness Week was organised by the BPHA in June to coincide with Ms Carter’s birthday. This is no longer done. Last year the National Office for Seniors and the Physically Challenged (NOSPC) held the Built Environment Accessibility Awards in December to recognise International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

Activist Margaret Carter died in 1992, but her legacy to the Island lives on. She would have been 74 today.
The late activist Margaret Carter. Today would have been her 74th birthday
Margaret Carter on the left in this 1987 file picture.

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Published June 01, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated May 31, 2013 at 8:37 pm)

‘She was not afraid to challenge authority’ Remembering the legacy of an activist for the disabled

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