Anastasia Cunningham, News Coordinator
IT WAS impossible to tell the difference as you watched their laughing little faces playing on the shaded playground, swinging as high as they could on the swings, climbing the monkey bar or see-sawing up and down, oblivious to everything but the happiness of enjoying each ride.
But there was a difference inside the charming compound of the McCam Child Development Centre on Old Hope Road in St Andrew.
Children with developmental challenges and typically developed children were interacting, playing and learning together; each helping the other to develop into much more rounded individuals.
That was the dream Pauline Watson-Campbell had when she founded McCam 25 years ago.
She wanted an inclusive early-childhood learning and developmental centre where children with special needs could grow and learn alongside typically developed children.
"We wanted to break down barriers in a society where people segregate because you are different. Everyone had the right to education, and children can learn alongside each other, regardless of the challenges that may exist," she noted.
Passion and mission
Trained and worked in the United Kingdom as a paediatric occupational and developmental specialist, Watson-Campbell had always known that God had called her to dedicate her life to early-childhood development, so it became her passion and mission.
When she returned to Jamaica and started work at the Mico University College Child Assessment and Research in Education Centre, Watson-Campbell realised that children with special needs were being brought in too late in their development. She wanted to start working with them much earlier, from birth, which was essential to how they would advance later in life.
"Zero to six are the developmental years when you can really make a difference. The brain is much more malleable, you can introduce so much more and give them that advantage. When we were starting McCam, we also decided that we were going to create an inclusive setting, not just pulling out children with special needs, but showing that the best therapy for them is to play, learn and live alongside their peers," she shared.
It was a big dream. Something that had never been done before. And one that posed quite challenging.
"A lot of people hated the idea, while some loved the idea. I had a lot of parents who came to enrol their child and when they saw that children with special needs were here, they left. They did not want their children going to school with 'those children'," she remembered.
"In those days it was so hard to break through the perception. A lot of persons thought if you had your child alongside a child with a disability something might rub off."
Thanks to the support of family and friends and several workshops and seminars, the idea of inclusive education finally gelled. Today, it is being supported and promoted by the Ministry of Education.
McCam also started working with primary and preparatory schools, so that once the children left them at age seven, the progress could continue.
Each child enrolled in McCam is given a thorough, comprehensive assessment, and where the need is seen, they provide therapeutic intervention in physical, psychological, developmental, social, educational, speech, functional, motor or sensory areas. They are also monitored very closely.
The school population of 60 children from birth to age seven years is almost evenly split with typically developed and special-needs children.
Most of those with special needs are mild to moderate, with five of them moderate to severe. Their disabilities mainly include autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, language/speech impediment, learning and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Each child is placed according to their special needs, with a child/teacher ratio of approximately six to one.
Watson-Campbell agrees that the inclusive education will not work with all disabled children, as it depends on their level of disability.
"For those with mild to moderate disabilities, then inclusive education is the perfect therapy. However, those with severe disabilities require special attention and are taught separately, but interact normally with everyone else during play and lunchtime," said the executive director.
Proud of what she has accomplished, she said there is no comparison to the wonders achieved steering the development of the children from such an early age.
"They learn so much more, and they learn from each other. You should see our children. They accept each other for who they are. Parents and children who have passed through our school keep coming back to tell us what a difference it has made being here," she said.
"Those with disabilities learn they are no less than anyone else, and they comfortably perform in society. Those that are typically developed have a greater appreciation for those with disabilities. They now see the person first as a human being before they see their disability, which is where we need to go as human beings."
"The past 25 years was an enriched learning experience and I have no regrets. It was very hard at times, but never discouraging. You really had to struggle against the odds to keep the school going. This is really not a money-making venture, it is a continuous effort to keep it at the standard you want," she said.
What keeps the humble yet passionate woman going is the difference she is able to make in the life of a child and the many success stories because of the dedication and commitment of the staff and board of directors.