Provide better opportunities for persons with disabilities
Whoever came up with the title 'Blind but brilliant' for an article in The Sunday Gleaner on January 11, 2015 meant no ill whatsoever. I am certain of this. I am also sure many people, myself included, thought it is rather pleasant to read about Coswell Barnett, a male educator at Clan Carty High, who is blind and doing an excellent job teaching Spanish. Not many people with disabilities have such opportunities. I could not, however, allow myself to move past the problematic nature of the title of the article - 'Blind but brilliant'.
The title gives the impression that people who are blind do not achieve because they are dunce. The 'Blind but brilliant' title is just as bad as 'black but beautiful', 'gay but monogamous', 'poor but disciplined', 'poor but honest and hard-working', and 'country but not backward'. They are similarly problematic/offensive. As a colleague said, Barnett's "sight should not affect his ability to excel [because] one's disability does not affect one's brilliance".
People like Barnett are rare cases because they are not usually provided with enough opportunities to achieve their full potential. As the National Policy for Persons with Disabilities (2000) states, persons with disabilities are faced with a number of problems, "especially in the areas of education, training and employment". Before January 2012, just about three per cent of the education budget was being spent on early childhood and special education. However, by September 2014, this increased to 14 per cent. This is commendable and we can expect (or hope) that it will have a positive impact on people with disabilities. The ministry must further disaggregate this data so we can properly assess spending on special education and the return on investment in this regard (I digress).
Our education system does not adequately facilitate the development of persons with disabilities as the necessary infrastructure, resources and regulations are not all in place. These findings have been documented by Senator Floyd Morris in the report on Access and Inclusion for persons with Disabilities in the Education System (2011). Among the 100 primary and secondary schools surveyed by Morris, there were poor levels of access - only 23.8 per cent had ramps and 83.3 per cent had no bathroom facilities for the disabled. Three per cent were equipped with adaptive technologies such as Job Access with Speech software, for those with visual impairment, and more than 80 per cent of schools did not provide students with disabilities with reading and examination materials in an accessible format such as Braille.
This is embarrassing. Jamaica was the first country in the world to sign and ratify the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The PWD Sector Plan of Vision 2030 provides a good framework for us to improve the lives of Jamaicans who have been neglected over the years. The passage of the long-awaited Disabilities Act is a step in the right direction.
The following recent achievements published in the Education Scorecard by the Ministry of Education illustrate the challenges further and, of course, gives us much hope:
1. Training for early childhood teachers to enable them to detect, remedy or refer for treatment children with physical, emotional or mental challenges so that they can be assisted early.
2. Establishment of three special needs diagnostic centres at Sam Sharpe Teachers' College in St James, Church Teachers' College in Manchester, and the College of Agriculture Science and Education in Portland.
3. Providing special needs resource persons to each regional office - seven already in place.
4. Conducting an islandwide survey (Child Find) to identify students with special needs - 6,500 students have been assessed so far. The report is to be completed by December this year.
5. Providing over 150 enrichment centres and carts in schools, with the help of Digicel Foundation, to support the performance of children with varying types of learning challenges using technology.
The Digicel Foundation must be commended for their efforts to increase and provide better opportunities for persons with disabilities to achieve their full potential. Since 2012, Digicel has spent over US$3 million to, inter alia, build ramps at schools, build eight education centres of excellence, provide tablets for children with autism, and train teachers and parents.
Let us all try to refrain from helping to perpetuate stereotypes about people from vulnerable and marginalised groups. It's critical that we be mindful of what this can do.