No longer invisible - Jamaican parents moving away from hiding their disabled children
For the second consecutive year, the Early Stimulation Programme (ESP) for children with disabilities is seeing a doubling of its enrolment figures, but the programme's director, Antonica Gunter-Gayle, doesn't mind this trend.
According to Gunter-Gayle, this is an indication that parents are no longer hiding their disabled children in the back rooms.
"I remember in the earlier years, children would be hidden. You would visit a home to find a child, and the child would be in the last room in the back of the house. The neighbour would not know that there is a disabled child, living beside them, because the child with disability would be hidden," said Gunter-Gayle, who has been with the programme for more than 28 years.
"Now we find that family and parents are now taking out the children. They take them to church, they take them to the beach, they take them to the supermarket," she said.
The ESP has been the answer to the cries of many parents who feared their children's disability would preclude them from formal education.
Over 50 new students
Gunter-Gayle said that where they were getting at most 25 new students registered for their child development centre in Kingston each year for structured classes, they have already registered 51 new students for the upcoming academic year.
"In terms of the home intervention programme or the community-based rehabilitation programme, we have more than 1,000 children.
"We try to reach all the children. There is need for more specialised personnel persons who are trained to work with children with disabling conditions however, we try to see the children as much as possible," said Gunter-Gayle.
The ESP caters to children between the ages of zero and six who are living with a disability, but with some parents taking a bit longer to come to terms with the fact that their children might need special intervention, the programme's director says there are a few older children as well.
"Sometimes they sit at home and wait, and then the reality hits them that this child should be in school. Sometimes they hear of other persons who have benefited from the programme and they decide that they want them to come out now," she said.
Gunter-Gayle lamented that while the parents of children with disabilities are becoming more enlightened, this is not necessarily the case for some persons in the society who have no qualms about ridiculing children with disabilities.
"You have a society that is still not considerate, that is sometimes still unkind towards persons with disabilities, that still believe in myths and superstitions, that don't really understand that these persons are persons too, regardless of their disability, or that children are children regardless of their disability," she said.
"They will stare, they will sometimes tease. They will sometimes, out of ignorance, question what is really wrong with this child. Is it that their mother is cruel or is being punished for something?
"We are still living in a society where people still think these things," she asserted.
Given the demand for intervention for children living with disabilities, Gunter-Gayle is happy for the strides that have been made over the years to ensure that these children are able to get the help they need.
ESP offices have been established in St James and Portland to ensure that the needs of rural children are met, and several parenting workshops have been hosted over the years to sensitise parents.