By Lara Pickford-Gordon
October 12 was World Sight Day and October 15 was White Cane Day Safety Day in the United States. The white cane is a symbol of independence for people who are blind.
The Catholic News’ Senior Writer Lara Pickford-Gordon interviewed Joseph Vautor-Laplaceliere, known in the Calypso fraternity as ‘The Mighty Lingo’ about the perceptions and challenges faced by a blind person. He also shares his entry into the Calypso arena.
Fifty-two-year-old Vautor-Laplaceliere is a handcraft worker at the Blind Welfare Association; he conveyed self-assurance and wit during our interview Friday, October 13.
Blind people in T&T still encounter discrimination and stereotypes and he had no reservations saying, “they treat us like children.” Vautor-Laplaceliere said two blind people attending an event will be seated together.
He quipped, “We might be in war with each other but because we blind, they put us to sit next to one another and if they know we have conflict they will say ‘but you are blind, why are you are arguing with people’. Is my eyes not working, everything else working!”
The remarks from sighted people are both condescending and insulting. He said, “After a certain hour you not supposed to be outside, ‘why you don’t get somebody to help you’; you sitting down in a taxi they asking ‘if you know where you going?’. Why would I be going if I don’t know where I am going?”. He has been told that as a blind person he should not get married. “Not me alone, I’ve been around blind people all my life,” he said.
Vautor-Laplaceliere said people comment about the blind woman who is pregnant that, “the man who do that he wicked!” And if it is a sighted man with a blind woman, “he taking advantage”. He admits this can happen but not always. “You see a sighted woman with a blind man ‘she only using him for he money, she robbing him,’” Vautor-Laplaceliere said.
He recounted going to get a loan from a banking institution and was told he had to give power of attorney. “I start to cuss and when the bank manager come and they said [to the manager] ‘if you see how this man was abusive to me’, he says ‘yeah, that is the Mighty Lingo’, all of a sudden they (the employee) change and call me back and say, ‘I never deal with this before’.”
The bank officer offered him the loan without having to hand over power of attorney. She did not know that Vautor-Laplaceliere knew his rights and did not have to give power of attorney. He decided to take his business elsewhere.
He recalled going to get credit in a store and the sales clerk asked the manager if credit is given to blind people. Vautor-Laplaceliere said he had all the required documents for the transaction; however, following that particular encounter, he pursued business elsewhere.
He said, “I not begging nobody for no favours…you trying to make life difficult for me.”
Vautor-Laplaceliere was born blind. His close-knit Barataria family and mother Molly were very supportive in nurturing an independent spirit. He went with them when they went shopping and attended children’s parties. “Some blind children are not so fortunate; even when they going cinema, I can’t see anything but most of the times they carrying me,” he said.
He describes his upbringing as “normal as is humanly possible” at the time there was no internet to research. Vautor-Laplaceliere called his mother “a rock”. There was support from members of the blind community who shared how they dealt with challenges. “By the time it comes around again, you have the confidence to deal with it,” he stated.
Music and Extempo
Vautor-Laplaceliere learned music while attending the School for the Blind in Santa Cruz.
“You had to do something either academics or music, blind sport wasn’t that big at that time so we used to play the guitar and fool around with all kinds of chord progressions and we used to be singing,” he said.
Vautor-Laplaceliere got into entertainment out of boredom. He was visiting friends at the Blind Welfare Association and they encouraged him to participate in the Blind Welfare Calypso competition. “At that time, everybody was into it, whether you could sing or not,” said Vautor-Laplaceliere. He was 19 years old and came fourth singing a composition written by Raphael Maule.
He admits lacking the confidence to do Extempo but finally decided to give it a try. He debuted in the Vat19 Anyhowers Extempo competition in 1999 and placed third. Also in that competition were some well-known names in Extempo today—Lady Africa (Leslie-Ann Bristow) and Black Sage (Phillip Murray).
In that year, he was supposed to take part in the prelims of the national Extempo competition but did not because of a death in the family. The following year, 2000, he again entered in the Anyhowers competition and met radio announcer Holly ‘Holly T’ Thomas, who, familiar with him, said: “you gonna buss them up this year!” Lingo’s response was a confident, “I want to”.
He placed second that year and the winner, Lady Africa, was encouraging of his efforts. He was picked as a reserve in the national Extempo Monarch competition 2000.
Through the efforts of Thomas and someone else who preferred to remain anonymous, Vautor-Laplaceliere joined the Yangatang Calypso tent with a contract. He was with them for about four years and also performed in Calypso Spektakula, Icons, and Klassic Russo Calypso tents.
In 2001, he made the finals of the Extempo Monarch competition. He disclosed that as a competitor, he sometimes felt “stifled” because he was blind. “Because everybody thought I deserved to place higher but that wasn’t happening. There were years I was very exceptional but they still didn’t pick me, people walked out the show and all that,” he explained.
Vautor-Laplaceliere told himself whenever he made a final, he was going to go all out because he did not know when this would happen again. In 2007, he was a finalist competing against Black Sage.
“They asked me, ‘when you knew you won?’, from the time they announced the finals…cause I aint sure to get back here next year,” he said. Vautor-Laplaceliere went on to win three more times 2008, 2009, and 2015 and had a couple “close seconds”.
He said more blind people have entered the Calypso arena since he began participating. Vautor-Laplaceliere said, “I was pleasantly surprised to learn the other artistes, not just in Extempo looked up to me and decide to try their hands.”
He said blind persons are in the labour force from banking to law; he gave the example of Marc Terrance Thorne, who was a Deputy Solicitor General. Fr Mikkel Trestrail is the first ordained blind priest in the Archdiocese of Port of Spain.
Vautor-Laplaceliere called for collaboration between interest groups representing persons with disabilities (PWD). “[They] need to be more vigilant with their awareness programmes because the fact that the public is still
ignorant towards us tells me these groups are not doing their jobs properly. We need to be better united as disabled people because strength is in numbers.”
He said better legislation is needed to accommodate PWDs. “I don’t know what is the status of the policy for PWDs.” The policy was being reviewed last year. Vautor-Laplaceliere said PWDs need to be pro-active in how they promote themselves, “how you sell yourself is how the public see you”.
Blind people make use of assistive technologies to make life easier including an electronic version of braille and text to speech reading software.
Vautor-Laplaceliere commented, “I could use a phone just as well as you, send messages, read messages, respond to you, go on WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Tik Toc, You Tube, you name it”.
We reveal our stereotyping of blind people if we are surprised to hear him say there are excellent cooks in the blind community. He rates himself as, “not the best cook on top the stove; I am a better baker”. From cooking Vautor-Laplaceliere said he learned “always time my pot”. There are tools to assist blind persons in the kitchen such as a liquid level indicator which makes a beep when liquid reaches the top. “I use that especially when I am pouring hot liquid so I don’t burn my hands,” he said.
Vautor-Laplaceliere joked that after tasting a dish cooked by someone from the blind community “you might want to put them in house”. He added, “My wife [Chanelle], to me, is one of the best cooks I have ever come across; she always trying something new; if she ain’t poison me, nobody else can,” he said then chuckled. The La Placelieres are the parents of a 12-year-old daughter.
TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
Glaucoma and untreated cataract are the main causes of blindness in the 40 years and older population according to a National Eye Survey 2013-2014 conducted by the University of the West Indies. Diabetic retinopathy is another contributor. Close to half of the cases in the five and older population had Moderate to Severe Vision Impairment (MSVI) due to uncorrected refractive error. The most frequent cause of blindness in children (44 per cent cases registered at the School for the Bind) is congenital anomalies.