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Left in limbo - Education system failing children with mild learning disabilities

Published:Sunday | September 21, 2014 | 9:00 AM
Students of the Randolph Lopez School of Hope doing a musical medley. - File
Dr Polly Bowes-Howell
Christine Rodriguez
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Nadine Wilson, Gleaner Staff Reporter

Scores of Jamaican children with mild intellectual disabilities are being deprived of an education as teachers in the mainstream schools are not equipped to deal with them while those institutions created for children with special needs are unable to enrol them.

"I get calls every day from parents who have children who fall in that spectrum and they can't find anywhere to send them. There is no public school, and even the private school spaces are few, and so outside of affordability, there is just no school that the parent can take the children to," declared founder of the Nathan Ebanks Foundation Christine Staple-Ebanks.

"The concern that I have is that we are allowing a significant population of Jamaican children to pass through the stages where they can really be helped, and we are putting a significant number of them at risk for poverty and all other kinds of problems because the children are growing up not being able to access a basic education.

"Many parents have said to me that they are just without hope and they really don't know what to do. We are watching children who are not being able to access their human rights to an education," added Staple-Ebanks.

Not enough spaces

She said part of the problem is that Jamaica does not seem to have a grasp of how many children are living with intellectual or mental disabilities and so enough spaces are not being planned to accommodate them.

One institution established to deal with children with moderate to profound disabilities is the Jamaica Association on Intellectual Disabilities (JAID) but its executive director, Christine Rodriguez, said it is now being inundated with applications from parents of children with mild disabilities.

"One of the problems that we have is the demand that is placed on us to accept the children with mild intellectual disabilities. If we were to accept those children, it would mean that they would knock out all the spaces we had. We would not be able to provide for the others," Rodriguez told The Sunday Gleaner.

"This is why we are so stern about following the procedures for such acceptance. The children must receive a psychological educational assessment. They must receive their assessment for their adaptive skills. We must determine that, in fact, they are true clients for our schools," added Rodriguez.

The association, in partnership with the Government, currently operates five main schools and 23 satellite schools across the island with approximately 1,500 students enrolled. Of these institutions, the Randolph Lopez School of Hope has the largest number of these students.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), about 10 per cent of any normal population would be individuals with special needs, and three per cent of this population would be those with intellectual disabilities. Of those with intellectual disabilities, about 88 per cent would be mild, while the remaining 12 per cent would be those with moderate, severe, or profound intellectual disabilities.

The WHO recommends that children with mild intellectual disabilities be included in the normal school system and Jamaica's education ministry agrees.

Rodriguez said the decision was made in the 1980s but still, children with mild intellectual disabilities are being turned out of the regular schools.

For this school year, the JAID, had to take on additional assessment officers to test close to 400 children whose parents were hoping to place them in one of the schools it operates although the association only had resources to admit about 150 new students across the island.

"Most of the persons didn't meet the criteria for intellectual disability," explained the school's assessment coordinator and educational psychologist Paulette Levers, who spent the summer conducting a number of tests to determine placement.

Can learn in normal school

She found that several of the children seeking places in special schools could learn in the normal school setting.

Intellectual disability refers to a significant impairment in an individual's mental development that creates learning difficulties and challenges with performing certain daily living tasks.

A diagnosis of intellectual disability is made when an individual has an intellectual functioning level (intelligence quotient) below 70-75; significant limitations existing in two or more adaptive skill areas; and evidence of the condition before age 18.

"Sometimes you find that children have average ability, but they are failing in core subject areas. It might be the techniques that the teachers are using and not catering to the child's particular learning style," argued Levers.

However, special needs and early childhood consultant Dr Polly Bowes-Howell argues that teachers in the mainstream schools do not have the skills needed to deal with children with special needs.

"The training colleges will have to take blame. No teacher should be leaving the training colleges coming into a classroom without an understanding of the nature and needs of the child and the environmental influences on the child. The teacher should come with that basic knowledge, but not all teachers who are currently in the classroom have been exposed to that sort of training," declared Bowes-Howell.

She said the failure of teachers to identify students with learning challenges and mild disabilities has resulted in the worsening of the situation for many of these children who are eventually weeded out of the school system instead of being helped when they start displaying behavioural problems.

"Some of these children are in the classroom and because they are not being identified early, they are not given the support they need [and] they begin to fall behind," said Bowes-Howell as she argued that in some cases, the children with mild learning disabilities lose their self-esteem as their parents give up on them.

Recently installed president of the Jamaica Teachers' Association, Doran Dixon, agrees that not all teachers have been exposed to special education techniques but argues that children with mild intellectual disabilities belong in the regular classroom to benefit from a normal education.