I have a daughter with Down Syndrome born in 1979, and initially, like most Trinidadians, I had no idea what that meant. Then I started to find out as much as I could. I had moved to Ireland in 1977, and back then life was often difficult for people with intellectual disabilities. Some families were ashamed; people were hidden away. My husband and I both became very involved in activism. We helped found the County Cavan branch of Ireland’s Down Syndrome Association and were part of a group of parents who helped advocate and fight for integrated education, that is, education within mainstream schools, for people with intellectual disabilities. Today that is the norm in Ireland. Everyone who can go to mainstream schools does so, regardless of disability.
Ireland back then was like Trinidad ten years ago. When I moved back home in 2005 with Eileen, I once stopped a maxi taxi and the driver pulled over, took one look at my daughter, and left. That would not happen today. Thanks to the bravery of key people with disabilities and hard-fought struggles by their families, visibility and awareness have dramatically improved in Trinidad. However, we still have a long way to go in our perception and interaction with people with disabilities.
As I got closer to retirement from The UWI, I decided that the most important thing I could do at this point in my life was to change how people think about disability. That is the reason I founded NODES: The UWI Network and Outreach for Disability Education and Sensitisation (www.nodes.co.tt). I was very fortunate to find a team of people passionate about launching a network that connects different disability groups and creates a platform for the inclusion and self representation of persons with disabilities, particularly in education.
We set out to achieve several goals, including a website at www.nodes.co.tt, and an international conference on disability at The UWI, Towards Social Integration: Rights, Roles, Recognition of Persons with Disabilities held in April 2015. (https://sta.uwi.edu/conferences/15/towardssocialintegration/ConferencePresentations.asp). We started a fortnightly column in Newsday to educate the public about disability. Then I made a documentary called Disabled Mis/Labled, in which people with disabilities and their families speak about their accomplishments, and the importance of state and societal support.
Positive change begins with changing our perceptions. I’ve found that many people don’t necessarily treat persons with disabilities badly. They merely act as though they are invisible, or charity cases, rather than full human beings, with gifts and abilities to contribute to the wider society. People with disabilities are sometimes even seen as a threat to society, or as someone who poses a danger both to themselves and others. This can often lead to discrimination in the workplace. For instance, in 2002, George Daniel, who was an activist, business owner, martial artist and basketball player, as well as a person in a wheelchair, organised a protest at the National Flour Mills, because of their then refusal to hire persons with disabilities.
In the film I made, Jason Dasent, a music producer who is also blind, put it this way: “I come from a large family and I swam, windsurfed and went to school at Holy Name Prep. I explored everything I wanted to do. If there was something adventurous that a blind person wasn’t “supposed” to do, it was kind of an understanding in my family that I should do it.” Yet Jason is not in the majority. Many blind persons with a range of skills and talents can only find work in Trinidad in mindless jobs. This is totally irrational.
One of the most important changes must be in education. There is a particular stigma relating to intellectual disabilities and mental disorders. Yet there is no reason why a person with autism, or Down Syndrome, or a person who is deaf or blind, cannot be properly educated. Dr Benjamin Braithwaite, NO DES member and Linguistics lecturer here at The UWI, points out that if you are born deaf, your first language is not English. So a deaf person is a foreign language learner. The first thing we need is re-education of our educators and proper educational facilities that take into account the different ways people learn. Most persons with disabilities can attend mainstream school if it is properly supported.
Adjusting our education system to take into account multiple intelligences and differentiated learning (where students can be provided with different avenues to learning in the same class or programme of study) can bring about positive change for our entire society. Every year when the results come out for SEA people point out that it is really only a small elite receiving a high-quality education. We say, “Boys are falling by the wayside and not responding to the rote learning that exists in most of our schools.” We say that there is a class bias in our education system. And nobody does anything about it.
Maybe if we started focusing on integrated and differentiated education, it would benefit everybody. We have the opportunity to get serious about the need to educate through the lens of difference – seeing and appreciating that people are different and learn differently. Instead we have a segregated education system focused on a few people who will do extremely well at the CXC and CAPE Level, and with little attention paid to the rest of the population. The people who need to change this are those shaping education policy.
I’ve noticed positive shifts in The UWI School of Education and in Early Childhood Education at St. Augustine. For example, The UWI School of Education with the State University of New York has a conference called Inclusive Education: Achieving Education for All http://sta.uwi.edu/conferences/17/ie/ coming up in February 2017. The Institute for Gender and Development has also issued a call for a forthcoming journal edition on Disability. However, we have a long way to go. In April 2016, NO DES hosted a One-Day Symposium on Rights and Activism in the wake of the Ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: (http://www.oas.org/dil/Convention_on_the_Rights_of_Persons_with_Disabilities.pdf).
Right now the consortium of disability groups (CODO) is meeting to prepare a shadow report to be presented to the UN on the government’s progress in implementing the CRPD. I am really pleased to be part of this.
NODES’ newest member is a lecturer in law, and I’m excited, because one of the most important changes we need is legislation, such as a Disability Act, that respects the rights of people with disabilities.
Successive governments in T&T have put some services in place for people with disabilities, but these need to be easy-to-access. Right now, there is too much red tape and the persons administering the support need to be trained to view families not as people seeking handouts, but as citizens who have rights. People with disabilities don’t need our pity. They need for us to see them as full human beings and equal citizens, and support them in developing all of their abilities.
UWI NODES MEMBERS
Dr Jean Antoine-Dunne
Prof Paula Morgan
Dr Jacqueline Huggins
Major David Benjamin
Dr Benjamin Braithwaite
Dr Innette Cambridge
Dr John Campbell
Debra Coryat Patton
Educational resources for people with disabilities
UWI St. Augustine Student Life and Development Department