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Homemakers: Senator Ifill’s full of firsts
By Allison Ramsay
Her Honour, Senator Kerryann Ifill, President of the Senate has created history in Barbados by becoming the first woman, first disabled person and youngest person at the age of 38 years old to be elected to this position.
Homemakers spoke with this phenomenal woman about her triple achievement and the path which has led her to be now known as Madame President.
Senator Ifill began losing her sight at the age of four and half. “I was in regular primary school. I was wearing classes and my vision was getting progressively worse. So that was what prompted my mother to take me back to doctor. That is when I realised that my cataracts got worse and that was the end of regular school for me. I was in the hospital for a while. I came home from the hospital and I could see. I went to sleep, woke up blind and that was that,” she said matter-of-factly.
Being blind did not faze her, but she was annoyed that she could no longer look at pictures in story books, which was one of the things she loved.
“The other thing that I missed was that I could not go to school. So I used to spend all my time sitting in one chair in one place because my grandmother was afraid that I would fall. She would always put me in one spot,” she continued.
After spending six months in the United States for operations, Senator Ifill returned to Barbados. At the age of six, she attended the School for the Blind and Deaf, now called the Irving Wilson School. She would eventually pass for the Combermere School, which she attended up to sixth form, becoming the first blind student at that institution, before moving onto the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus (UWI).
She recalls that throughout her school life, she always had a great group of friends, however, her biggest problem was access to textbooks.
“As computers got more developed, it got easier; but my first couple of years at school when I didn’t have that and I didn’t have Braille textbooks, it was a little bit more difficult so I took notes in class. I used a Braille writer, I used a typewriter when I wanted to hand in assignments. My Maths teacher dedicated two years to doing Maths lessons with me to make sure that I was grasping the concepts in class.
“I had very good friends, so what I couldn’t cover in class, my friends helped me with, that was before sixth form. Sixth form was a little less stressful, I did reading subjects so the biggest stress then was getting textbooks.”
“I would never forget in Upper Sixth, I got my English and Sociology textbooks in April and the exams were in June. I literally remember reading two textbooks at one time! I had some of my English books on cassette and some in Braille. I literally remember sitting on my bedroom floor, listening to the tape recorder playing one book and reading another book. So I had to study two things at the same time. I don’t know how I got it done.”
“UWI was different. In the first year, they paid students to read onto cassette for me but by second year they bought a reading machine. My grades improved dramatically once I had access to my own reading material. I not only needed access to the reading material, I also needed somebody to help me research. They assigned two staff members in the library so anytime I wanted to research, they would help me find my books. Then I would go off to the reading machine and do my reading. I did exams in Braille and they paid somebody to read it in print,” she explained.
First blind student to complete UWI
This exceptional lady was not the first blind person to attend UWI but she was the first person to complete her course of study and in three years – a promise she made to herself. She chose to do a BSc in Sociology and Psychology. Her heart was in Psychology but it was not offered as a major at the time.
In 1999, she graduated with an Upper Second Class Honours degree and said the achievement was awesome. “It wasn’t so much about being blind and completing UWI. It was about completing UWI, full stop!”
Senator Ifill regrets that she did not pursue her passion to study law after following advice from someone who thought they were saving her from making a disastrous mistake with her career choices.
“Not that the person was being unkind, but it showed their ignorance and mine for following them. I could have been a lawyer all of this time and I chose not to go to law school and I should have. I have a friend who is blind who is a lawyer,” she said remorsefully.
Kerryann, as she is known to her friends and family, eventually went on obtained an MBA at Durham Business School in England. She intends to continue her studies by venturing into Rehab counselling to counsel people with disabilities to train their minds into thinking like a person with a disability.
“Not a person with a problem, but a person with a life experience they need to cope and work with, ” she emphasised.
“A Masters in Disability Studies is another option, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that law still appeals to me,” she said.
On the job
Senator Ifill likes to be on the job and highlighted some of her employment history. “I worked with Women and Development, I did a project with them years ago. I did some volunteer work with PAREDOS for awhile. Then I started working with the Barbados Council for the Disabled where I worked for nine years as Project Coordinator/Research Project Officer because the title changed part way through,” she outlined.
“I also did online tutoring with UWI Distance Education now Open Campus but then when I took on the role of Senator, that was the final semester doing online work because it started getting a bit hectic, so I gave that one up.”
“Eventually, I left the Barbados Council for the Disabled and came to work at the National Disabilities Unit. I coordinate the programmes for the blind and visually impaired. I teach advanced use of the JAWS for Windows Screen Reader. I also teach the Magic Screen Magnification programme and the Microsoft Office programmes. We also provide Braille transcription services for any Government agency.”
She has never let blindness affect her life.
“I look at life this way – you do what you are supposed to do and you do it the best way you can. If you happen to be blind, well, just find a way to do it. With being blind, I do not waste time complaining over my being blind... Blindness is a part of me. That is like saying, today I won’t be a woman. You are a woman all of the time. Yes, we have challenges to overcome as women but that does not mean that we have to stop being who we are. We are women, I am blind. That is part of it so I do what I have to do,” was her pragmatic perspective.
A typical week
The life of Senator Ifill is one which is quite packed because she wears several different hats. On any given day, she can be called to wear two or three of them.
“I coordinate the technology services for the blind programme for the National Disabilities Unit. That incorporates teaching computers to other blind people. It also entails doing Braille reproduction, transcriptions and advising people on Assistive Technology that they can use in their homes. So on a typical day, I come here and do those things.
“I am President of the Barbados Council for the Disabled so I also may pay visits to that office. I go over there and deal with matters be it meetings or office work, correspondence whatever the case maybe.
“I also attend meetings for other reasons. I am a Vice-President for the National United Society of the Blind, so I may have to attend some meetings related to that.
“Then of course there are my parliamentary responsibilities. There are parliamentary group meetings, our Senate sittings and then of course there are my church commitments. I may also have a meeting at church because we may be planning some activity or the other. Somewhere in there I try to fit in the gym at least three days a week.
“I am also doing the advanced counselling course with the Erdiston Teacher Training College on Thursdays. I am also doing an online course in Information Technology, so there is studying for those two courses as well, somewhere between all of those things.”
Becoming a senator
Former Prime Minister, David Thompson, appointed Kerryann Ifill to the Senate in 2008. Then, when she was told that she was to become the Deputy President of the Senate she was “stunned, staggered and shocked.”
“I never aspired to political office. So being a Senator in the first place was enough of a shock to me. Then when I understood that the Prime Minister wanted me to be Deputy President, I thought he’d lost his mind! I couldn’t believe that he was actually thinking this!” she revealed.
“That was my initial reaction but people make assumptions about things and they think that was a token he was doing. On the other hand, asking me to be the Deputy President of the Senate says something and it says this is not a token. It means that somebody believes that you have the ability to handle this job and this is what struck me. I remember the first day I had to sit in the chair I was nervous and it went okay.”
She recalls with a smile that working with Sir Branford Taitt, who recently retired as President of the Senate was an amazing and educational experience. “He is one of the most charming people I know. He is an extremely intelligent person.”
Senator Ifill said that she is honoured that Prime Minister Freundel Stuart appointed her to the new position of President of the Senate. When asked her reaction to this she said: “Since I have been in the Senate for four years, the visually impaired part of it has worn off for me. There is nothing new to that. I can walk around the main building of Parliament alone. I don’t need an escort. When it comes to reading Bills etc. we worked out these things along time ago. So the visually impaired part of it does not hold any novelty for me. We have got everything down to a science now.
“Being the first female and the youngest are more overwhelming. It is a triumph for disabilities but the part of being the first female, it carries more weight to me. This is a whole new experience for me.”
Speaking about being the youngest person to hold this position, she said, “Take a guy like Sir Branford, he is described as the best Minister of Health, he has many accolades, he has many achievements, all of this knowledge and then there is a me. I don’t have a tenth of the experience that he has. Sir Branford inspired respect because this is a man who proved himself able and fit for the task years ago but here is this young little upstart that has taken up this post, has no legal training, no political background, none of these things but is called upon to render judgements in political discourse.”
“I am the second youngest Senator, after Senator Andre Worrell. So how do you defer to me? You know and I know that you have more political experience than I do. You know and I know that you are lawyer...but you have to standby whatever judgement I render on an issue…
“Not that anyone disrespects, but I must admit that part does worry me sometimes because I find that some women tend to over-compensate because you know people already judge you harshly because you are a woman. I don’t want to be like that, but at the same time I don’t want to appear to be a pushover. So I have to find that happy medium somewhere in there,” she continued.
The new President of the Senate added that she would never forget the words of Prime Minister Thompson at a retreat in 2008 when he said, “We have not come into power, we have come into office.” And so, she said, “I do not see myself as a woman with a lot of power; I see myself as a woman with a lot of responsibility.”
Preserving tradition, bringing a new style
“You have a tradition and too often we are ready to sweep away traditions and say that is old-fashioned. There are reasons for traditions, when we sweep away the traditions, we take away the importance and the reverence that we should bring to certain things. From that perspective, I would not do things differently.
“On the other hand, I intend to utilise technology a lot more. In Parliament, we have to do printing but there is way too much paper. I get Order Papers when the House sits and for the Senate. I don’t read them because they are printed. They are online. I read them online so that is wasted paper sending it to me because I don’t need them. I’m blind so as far as I am concerned, it’s blank paper to me,” she pointed out.
“When we have Bills, I download them and read them on the computer. The Estimates this year was over 400 pages; last year, over 700 pages – this is a lot of paper. If we can eliminate using so much paper and use more technology it makes it accessible to myself and makes it easier for other parliamentarians to manage. So more use of technology is one of the things I would like to introduce to the Senate. It would save some money and the help the environment in the process.
She conceded, “Like it or not, I have to bring my own style to doing things because I am blind. I was sitting and smiling on Wednesday because the Standing Orders said the first person to catch the President’s eye... I said to myself they would have to wait on that, they would never catch my eye! So we have to come up with other ways to do that. We have been doing it for a while, Senator Maxine McClean prompts me on my right or the Dean would prompt me on my left when someone wants speak. Or you can stand and say something to catch the President’s ear but order will be maintained.”
Balancing work & play
All work and no play is not how Senator Ifill operates. Her hobbies range from interest in technology, reading, crotchet, swimming on Saturdays and going to the gym.
An Anglican all of her life, she is the Sunday School Superintendent at the Church of the Resurrection. She loves children and loves teaching them about God. She also has a network of friends internationally so she spends time hanging out with them on Skype and other various social media.
She says that she is able to do all of these activities at the moment since she is single and has no children, by balancing her time and planning ahead.
She hopes to get married someday and have children of her own. “I love children but it depends on God. The reality of the story is that disability is not something that the average man is willing or interested to take on. They don’t know how they would handle it. So they don’t think that you can handle it. They don’t see people with disabilities as nurturers so some people don’t think you can’t do that and that’s probably part of the problem.”
“It is perfectly natural to grieve. If you lose something or a loved one you grieve that is the first step but don’t wallow in grief. Look at the things you still can do. Just because you lost a limb, for instance, it doesn’t mean you can’t feed yourself anymore. It may be painful at first, [but] you can go back to driving if you have to. It is easier for people to help you, if they know you can help yourself. If you become so dependent, you are going to be unpleasant to be around.”
Meanwhile, Senator Ifill would like to see the Ratification of the Convention of the Rights for Persons With Disabilities come to fruition in Barbados. According to her, there must be more employment opportunities for persons with disabilities.
“People with disabilities are citizens, we are entitled to the rights like all citizens and one of those rights is the right to work and the right to contribute. We don’t have to be service recipients. We can be service providers as well. The only way we can contribute to National Insurance is if we are working.”
She also wants to see more technology such as the iPhone, Androids and devices which can make life easier for the disabled available at more affordable prices.
Senator Ifill added, “I would like to say thank you to everyone who has offered their congratulations and best wishes. This is the Month of the Disabled and our theme is ‘Creating An Inclusive Society for All.’ That means that everybody has a part to play. I would want to say to persons with disabilities this is your society, you have a right to be in it, so make sure you are given the respect that is your due. To other persons in society, stop looking at persons with disabilities as burdens but just see them as other person in the society trying to make a living just like you.”