Founder and long-time chairperson of the Bermuda Physically Handicapped Association (BPHA), Margaret Carter championed the cause of people with disabilities with a singular passion.
She herself was disabled, but unlike the majority of disabled Bermudians of her generation, she received access to a formal education. That, along with her talents as an organizer, her writing skills, wit and media savvy, combined to make her a formidable advocate.
It was largely because of her activism that the needs of disabled Bermudians were placed on the national agenda in the 1970s and 1980s. Change was gradual, but lasting. It led to more employment opportunities for people with disabilities and heightened public awareness of the need to make buildings and streets in Hamilton accessible to people in wheelchairs.
Summerhaven, the residence for people with physical disabilities in Smith’s Parish, is just one of her legacies. She was also at the forefront of the BPHA’s seven-year campaign to amend the 1981 Human Rights Act so that people with disabilities would have legal protection from discrimination.
Carter was the only child of George Caswell Carter, a British engineer who came to Bermuda to work for the Bermuda Electric Light Company, and Margaret Daisy (born Taylor) Carter.
She was born with muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease that causes muscle weakness. At age three, she flew to New York with her mother on the flying boat Cavalier to seek medical treatment, but by age 11, she was permanently in a wheelchair.
She was raised by her devoted parents at Rothesay, a large comfortable home on Mount Hill, Pembroke that had sweeping views of the North Shore.
She received her early schooling at Mount St. Agnes Academy, which she entered in 1944 at age five. Her parents were devout Presbyterians, but Roman Catholic Mount St. Agnes was the only school willing to accept her as a student.
Yet for that era, she was more fortunate than other Bermudians with disabilities, who were usually kept at home and hidden from public view, or forced to live in an institution, such as St. Brendan’s, the psychiatric hospital, because their families were unable to cope with the demands of caring for them.
And although she was schooled in a whites-only setting, Carter was raised in an integrated neighbourhood, which gave her a keen sense of the role that race played in Bermuda’s then segregated society.
When she was 13, she left the island to receive rehabilitation at Pinderfields Hospital in Yorkshire, England. She made the most of her three years at Pinderfields, relying on her sense of humour to cope with her loneliness and isolation. The whole experience left her with a profound dislike of institutions.
On her return to Bermuda, she completed a correspondence course in creative writing and began to develop her talents as a writer and a doll maker. She took painting lessons and travelled frequently with her parents. In 1964, the family toured the United States and the United Kingdom for 11 weeks.
By then, she had written a novel based on her experiences in the rehab hospital, but despite favourable reviews from publishers, it never made it into print.
She later self-published two pamphlets ‘1609 was a Very Funny Year’, a satirical account of Bermuda’s settlement, and ‘Bermuda Joe’, which was about a talking sea horse with the secret for world peace. Writing was a passion and a means of creative expression her entire life.
Carter’s parents were a bedrock of support. Her father built the hoist she used to get in and out of bed. After his death in the 1960s, her mother outfitted the family car with a hydraulic lift, which made the task of transferring her in and out of the vehicle easier.
In 1966, she began laying the groundwork for her university education, beginning with a televised G.C.E. history course taught by teacher-historian Colin Benbow. She received a second G.C.E subject in English.
Courses taken through Canada’s Queen’s University Extension in Bermuda followed, which led to her eventually obtaining a bachelor of arts with a major in psychology in 1983.
The activist phase of her life began in 1970 when she placed a newspaper ad, inviting people who were disabled to contact her. Her initial intention was to establish a network of social contacts because she realised that her mother, who was her full-time caregiver, would not always be around to care for her.
The result was the formation of the BPHA that same year. It became the forum through which Carter, working with a core group of disabled and able-bodied members, campaigned for jobs, and greater access to public facilities, education and transportation.
Key members included Willard Fox, who like Carter had been disabled from birth; Father Pat Mackan, a Canadian Roman Catholic priest who was attached to St. Anthony’s Church in Warwick between 1979 and 1984 and help found Hope Homes for the mentally disabled; and Ronald Lightbourne, a future president of the National Association of Handicapped Persons, an umbrella organization. Both Mackan and Lighbourne were non-disabled activists on whom Carter leaned heavily for support.
It took some years before BPHA could boast of successes, but by 1974, Government had conducted a survey to determine the number of people with disabilitiessomething the BPHA had called for the year it formed.
In 1978, a Government report with recommendations to improve the lives of handicapped had been drawn up.
In 1981, Bermuda observed the Year of the Handicapped. It was a memorable year for Carter, who, accompanied by Ron Lightbourne, travelled to Israel to attend an International Year of the Disabled Persons design exhibition as an official delegate. In 1983, the first Access Awareness Conference in Bermuda took place, and several new government policies flowed from that.
A major development occurred in March 1984 with the opening of Summerhaven, a residence providing semi-independent living for people with physical disabilities. Businessman Richard Gorham led the fundraising drive for the $2 million project, for which Government provided a pristine property overlooking John Smith’s Bay. Lady Ramsbotham, wife of Governor Sir Peter Ramsbotham, gave crucial support as well. The Ramsbothams were parents of a disabled daughter.
The impetus for Summerhaven derived from Carter’s acute awareness of the need for such a residence. A temporary stay at Prospect geriatric hospital when her mother was ill had only increased her strong dislike of institutions.
She was all too aware of her own good fortune at being able to live at home, and of the housing challenges other Bermudians with disabilities faced. Fellow activist and BPHA executive member Willard Fox became one of the first residents of Summerhaven, a move that gave him a room of his own.
Carter, who worked with Lady Ramsbotham on the project for five years, cut the ribbon at its official opening, and served on Summerhaven’s board. Summerhaven, which can accommodate 18 people, continues to play an important role in addressing the housing needs of people with disabilities.
Throughout the 1980s, the BPHA pressed on with its advocacy. In 1988, after seven years of promises and false starts, it achieved a major victory when Parliament passed the long-awaited amendment to the Human Rights Act. Its effect was to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of disability.
The 1990s ushered in more developments. In 1990, Government hired a specialist employment officer to match the needs of the disabled with employers. Carter hailed the new post as a “wonderful” breakthrough.
In June 1991, Carter was able to point to successes in several areas. There were nine buses with hydraulic lifts on the roads, where there were none in 1970, she told the Mid-Ocean News, and a swimming pool had been built at St. Brendan’s to provide therapy for the disabled.
Her overall tone was one of optimism. Carter was quoted as saying: “At first there was minimal success. As the association grew to include about 150 membersboth disabled and non-disabledwe became more active. We started to ask for more things and to point out needs.”
In July 1991, a building code went into effect that required public buildings to be accessible. Hamilton’s City Hall had led the way in 1980, installing ramps on city streets, although it would take 11 more years for the Corporation to build ramps at City Hall itself, in addition to an elevator to give the disabled access to one of the two art galleries on the second floor.
The BPHA offered employment opportunities for the disabled with limited skills at its workshop at Prospect. Carter worked at the BPHA workshop two days a week, and conducted much of the BPHA’s business, including fundraising, from her home on the other days.
Her activities included coordinating transport for disabled locals and tourists with two vans that had been purchased with private contributions and were manned by a team of volunteer drivers.
After Carter’s mother died in 1985, Carter turned her house into a cooperative. Ronald Lightbourne joined the household, along with Rosie Fox, a mentally disabled woman who became her caregiver.
Conscious of the damaging effects of discrimination of any form, Carter became a founding member of Bermuda’s Anti-Apartheid Group, which waged a campaign throughout the 1980s to end apartheid in South Africa.
Unapologetically vocal, Carter made effective use of the media in the BPHA’s many battleswhether they were with Government over what she saw as its slow pace in changing policy, or with a rogue taxi driver for refusing to pick up people in wheelchairs.
In 1990, she publicly chastised Raymond White, owner of Little Theatre, for screening the film My Left Foot, which was about the life of disabled painter Christy Brown, in a cinema that was inaccessible. She dismissed White’s offer to have her lifted up the stairs, saying there had to be a more dignified way for a person with a disability to view the film than by having to be carried through the back door.
Carter, who never married, lived a full life. She was an active participant in Bermuda’s cultural sceneshe enjoyed theatre, films, art and dining out. As a young adult, she took painting lessons, and even exhibited her work, but the future activist told a Royal Gazette reporter in December 1970 that she was unable to view her own paintings because the second floor gallery at City Hall was inaccessible. She honed her writing skills through her membership in various writing groups.
Carter was a co-writer, with Ron Lightbourne, of 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.
Carter’s activism came to a sudden halt in November 1992 when she suffered a stroke while attending a creative writing workshop sponsored by Government’s Department of Culture and led by the Barbadian novelist George Lamming. She died the following month at age 53.
Her funeral, which was held at the Anglican Cathedral, was attended from a wide cross-section, including activists, Government and Opposition MPs, and clergy from different denominations. A jazz band serenaded her coffin out of the Cathedral, in New Orleans tradition, on its way to the Methodist Cemetery on Cemetery Road, Pembroke, where she was buried.
Just two months before her death, Government adopted a new policy of mainstreaming disabled students into the regular school system.
In 1993, a year after her death, the Bermuda Writers’ Collective, of which she was a member, published An Isle so Long Unknown, its second collection of short stories, in her memory. Carter’s Snow White and Briar Rose Revisited is among the collection.
Despite Carter’s love of literature, most of the Bermuda National Library's collections were off limits to her because they were inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. That changed in 1997 when an elevator was installed and dedicated in her memory.
Carter was a formidable figure who was unwavering in her goal that Government and society in general become more responsive to the needs of people with disabilities.
Clare Hatcher, a lawyer, close friend and fellow activist who now lives in Ireland, said Carter challenged the notion that people with disabilities should be treated as objects of charity.
Carter was the recipient of many honours, including Rotary Club’s highest award, the Paul Harris Fellow. She served on Government’s Rehabilitation Council in the 1970s and the Human Rights Commission in the 1980s, which was a testament to her stature as the leading spokesperson on matters affecting people with disabilities.
Her commitment for people with disabilities stretched beyond the gravein her will, she left a cottage to the Board of Summerhaven, with the rental income contributing to its operating expenses.
Despite Carter’s achievements, barriers remain for people with disabilities. In the years since Carter’s death, no one has emerged to take up the cause of people with disabilities with quite the same degree of fervour.