Disabled children in education: THE INVISIBLES
Matondo Mukulu, Guest Columnist
The summer holidays are in full swing and most parents are breathing a sigh of relief that they (not the children) have being given a break from the demands (financial and physical) of a hectic calendar. Parents do get a chance to relax a bit, at least for the month of July.
However, there does exist a group of parents for whom the demands will never cease. I make mention of the parents of those disabled children who are in our education system. For them, the costs remain the same or increase progressively as parents scramble to find appropriate places for them to be meaningfully engaged over the summer break.
Currently, according to Ministry of Education data, we have more than 4,000 students who are known to have at least one disability (yes, some students have multiple disabilities) and these are students in schools that have been specifically designed for special-needs instruction and care. We can be proud, but not satisfied, that as a nation we do have 11 specialist schools for our disabled students. However, in these schools, any real participant (parent and educator) will tell you that the institutions are woefully inadequate.
The inadequacies are very pronounced. They manifest themselves in the additional costs that parents have to incur, especially for those because parents have taken the view that their children will stand a better chance if they are admitted to private institutions. The additional costs include tuition, transportation, additional physical support, and, in some instances, if not round-the-clock care, certainly near 24 hours monitoring. These are costs that, for most parents with disabled children, are still continuing holidays, which is exacerbated if this happens in a single-parent parent.
Tight fiscal space
Currently, Jamaica is operating in a very tight fiscal space, but our constitutional commitment to equal treatment for all, as expressed through the Charter of Rights, and our soon-to-be-enacted Disability Bill, demands of us that we think through the problems, as the constant refrain of resource constraints will land us in breach of not only our own statutes, but also international legal instruments to which we are signatory.
In our discussions with the hard-working civil servants at the Ministry of Education's Special Education Unit, we have been informed of the path we should be on. In this regard, they identify as a serious issue the potential large cadre of undiagnosed students in our regular primary- and secondary-school system.
While we know that we have more than 4,000 students who attend our segregated schools, because our system of early diagnosis is woefully inadequate, significant numbers of our students are going through our mainstream educational system undetected. We should not be alarmed if we are talking about numbers well above 4,000.
The Office of the Public Defender, in pursuit of its statutory mandate, has made this one of the seminal issues of this period, as we cannot afford the approach to the disabled in education that was used in the first 25 years after our independence. That experience is best described as reflective of a nation that was in denial while appearing rather too comfortable to discriminate against children with disabilities (physical and mental impairment) and today the streets of our main towns and cities bear witness to the negative results of that approach, as we see the disabled holding out their bowls, seeking a dollar or 10.
It is in this context that the Office of the Public Defender has recommended that the legislature give serious consideration to imposing a duty on school boards to have what we refer to as Disability Equality Policy. In practical terms, by this legislative requirement, either all or some school boards will have a statutory duty to outline (every five or seven years) the steps they will put in place to improve access to their institutions for those students who are disabled.
The undertakings given in such a policy would have the force of law, as any failure by the institution to provide that which it committed itself to do could form the basis for a potential challenge. However, it is not something that we should fear, because rather than increase legal challenges, its greater potential is in causing school boards to be more mindful in their decision making to the needs of the disabled student.
Of course, the Office of the Public Defender does not take the view that this duty should be imposed on all schools. In fact, we are suggesting that the Ministry of Education review the top schools and two other middle-ranking schools in each parish and place the duty on such schools. We will create a perception problem if we place our disabled students in schools that are non-performing; we must ensure that confidence is at the highest level for our disabled students, and this we can achieve by exposing them to the better schools.
The benefit of this would be that each parish or region would have a mainstream school that could meet the needs of a disabled child, while preserving the segregated schools, for those with more severe or multiple disabilities. This is a more cost-effective method of the State achieving its positive constitutional duty to our children who are disabled, given the financial constraints.
taxation system to ease the financial burden
There is also the urgent need to give serious consideration to how best we can use the taxation system to ease the financial burden on those working parents who have disabled children in full-time education or training. Any proposal that allows these parents to pay an adjusted rate of tax, as they do spend a greater proportion of their incomes on their child's welfare, would redound to the benefit of the child. This is a conversation the Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Finance should commence, as it does not entail any new expenditure by the State, save the initial costs of changing the tax code of these parents.
Our country is facing a serious problem. We have an invisible group of young people in our educational system for whom the platform is not working because they are disabled, but to whom the State promised equal treatment.
The Office of the Public Defender is committed to assisting the State, and we will continue being that fountain of reason and practical solutions for this group, who we count among the least of these in our society.
Disabled children in education: the invisibles