Floyd Morris | Tear those barriers down
Many individuals would have seen me in the media on Labour Day, throwing "sledgehammer into concrete" at one of the national projects in St Ann. It was not a show or public-relations opportunity for me. Rather, it was a passionate attempt to tear down some of the barriers that have prevented my brothers and sisters with disabilities from obtaining a quality education.
I have documented my experiences in the Jamaican education system during the time of going blind, in my book, By Faith, Not By Sight. The experiences show how very few of our educational institutions at the time had any trained professionals or facilities to accommodate students with disabilities.
After I left school in 1986 and became blind in 1989, I developed a passion for continuing my education. But in order for me to do so, I had to leave St Mary to domicile in Kingston to get the necessary support services. Thanks to the Jamaica Society for the Blind (JSB), I was able to reclaim my life as they gave me the initial training in Braille and other daily living skills.
The experiences that I have had in this wonderful country of ours have ignited a fire in my belly to make things better for those thousands of disabled Jamaicans who have great talent.
It does not matter which administration implements the measures to create greater access to our schools for persons with disabilities. I just want these barriers to be torn down so that they can gain access to regular schools.
HEART AND SOUL
I believe that most Jamaicans are aware of the fact that the initiative to include the construction of ramps in our schools for Labour Day 2018 had its genesis in a resolution that I tabled and got approved in the Senate. In fairness to Minister of Education Ruel Reid, he has consistently indicated to the public the role that I have played in this process. This is why I have put my heart and soul into it because it is my brothers and sisters with disabilities that will benefit. And, I am not going to stop until all these barriers are torn down and all the schools in our country become accessible to persons with disabilities.
From the late 1960s, Jamaica started to include persons with visual disabilities in the regular schools. This was accelerated in the 1990s, and we saw some schools such as Mona High being built with wheelchair access for persons with physical disabilities.
When Maxine Henry-Wilson became minister of education in 2002, the Government adopted a policy to make all new schools accessible to persons with disabilities and we have seen a steady increase in the number of schools with physical access. Eltham High and Cedar Grove Academy in St Catherine are two of the latest schools to be constructed with access features for persons with physical disabilities.
However, since that time, we have signed and ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and amended the Constitution to make access to primary education a right and approved the Disabilities Act in 2014. All of these legal instruments require us to make our schools accessible to, and inclusive of, persons with disabilities. But experience has taught me that this will not happen like that.
I have seen that if persons with disabilities are not at the table where decisions are being made about the development of our country, issues relating to them are forgotten or swept under the carpet. There were individuals, for example, who were prepared to come to the Senate to oppose the resolution that I had tabled to make our regular educational institutions accessible to, and inclusive of, persons with disabilities. This is because they have no clue as to the issues involved with this community.
The Ministry of Education, Youth and Information's mantra is 'Every child can learn and every child must learn.' This is a statement of fact, and 'every child' includes children with disabilities. These children, must, therefore, be included in the general education system, and we have to prepare the institutions to deal with this segment of our population.
Physical access is one thing, but we also have to get teachers trained to deal with the multiplicity of issues relating to the different types of disabilities. There are students, for example, with varying learning disabilities who we just dismiss as dunce or recalcitrant. We have not stopped to do any assessment to see what the factors impeding the learning process are.
If we are to bring genuine meaning to the wonderful mantra of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, we must move with alacrity to include persons with disabilities in the regular education institutions. This will require us to make all of them accessible in terms of physical space, modern technologies, and professionals who have the competence to deal with issues relating to persons with disabilities. We must tear down all those barriers that seek to impede the progress and prosperity of persons with disabilities.
- Senator Floyd Morris, PhD, is director of the UWI Centre for Disability Studies and opposition spokesperson for social security. Email feedback to columns