Include me - Pay special attention to children with special needs
May has been celebrated as Child Month in Jamaica since 1953. Various institutions, such as schools, churches, clubs, and governmental and non-governmental entities, are encouraged to have activities that focus solely on children, underscoring a common vision and goal for the children of Jamaica.
This year, Child Month is being observed under the theme ‘Encourage, Enable, Include Me’. This theme is applicable to all children, but the emphasis is on those children among us with special needs. It has been said that the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its weakest members. Children are the weakest members of any society. They require care and protection, and children with special needs even more so.
How do we know if a child has special needs, though? Sometimes it is not clear, whether to an adult, another child, or even parents.
The children with obvious needs have identifiable limitations. These vary based on the part of the child’s anatomy that is affected. Blindness, deafness, and issues with the child’s arms or legs are readily recognisable. Intellectual limitations might also be obvious, especially when accompanied by changes in physical appearance, such as in Down’s syndrome (the most common chromosomal anomaly causing a variety of physical defects and is associated with intellectual impairment).
Not so obvious is when a child is not reaching what are considered the normal developmental milestones. This includes not talking by a certain age, inability to maintain attention during activities, stuttering speech, appearing to be a slow learner, or difficulty interacting with others, even their parents.
Other instances of special needs include when a child is unable to participate in physical activities that seem easy to their peers due to an illness that restricts their activity, but might not be apparent to the observer. Examples include sickle-cell disease, which is very common in Jamaica, and congenital heart disease. It can never be overstressed that a paediatrician should be included in the early stages of a child’s development so that any limitations can be identified and managed in a timely manner.
What can we do as parents, adults, and friends of a child with special needs, not just for the month of May, but beyond? What does it mean to ‘encourage, enable and include’ the children among us with special needs?
Each child is uniquely different in its circumstances and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. For children with special needs, encouragement is a form of positive reinforcement that will allow them to discover their strengths so that they can develop a sense of self-worth and confidence. Praise them, reward them, and maintain a positive outlook with both successes and failures. A good attitude cannot solve the issues faced by a child with a disability, but it definitely gives hope.
Enabling a child with special needs means providing them with tools, both physical and psychological, to survive and function in a society where they are more likely to be marginalised. In today’s technological era of social-media prominence, these tools can be maximised where applicable. Speech-to-text programmes might help students who have difficulty with reading or who are visually impaired. Online games can assist with coordination. Touch-screen devices can help with communicating. While its not a substitute, social-networking sites can be helpful since many children with special needs have difficulty establishing face-to- face social connections. Technology can be used here for good but needs to be monitored by a responsible adult.
Inclusion is a good way to show love and support. This also involves teaching other children and adults how to interact meaningfully with special-needs children. Doing so, with the patience that is required, is priceless. It is hoped that with the next generation, this attitudinal change will be part of our society. Children with special needs will be encouraged and given hope to live as full a life as possible. They will be enabled to participate in and contribute to society like many successful people before them, such as Stevie Wonder, Muhammed Ali, and our own Senator Floyd Morris. They will be included from the planning of buildings to the invitation to that beach trip.
On National Children’s Day, May 17, let us all wear sunshine yellow to observe the day. This is a way of showing our commitment to encourage, enable and include all children. They are the light of the nation, special needs or not.
Dr Tamra Tomlinson Morris is a paediatrician and cardiologist at the Paediatric Place.