At seven years, Kyndra is already defying the general prognosis many still have for children with Down’s Syndrome, a chromosomal condition associated with developmental delay including intellectual disability. Kyndra, however, is doing so well that along with her mother, Kelly John and paediatrician, I see her fitting into a mainstream school environment. The problem is that while most parents have started shopping for school uniforms and other school material, Kelly is still awaiting word from authorities in the face of failed school applications.
Our problems with inclusion continue to have a negative impact on the lives of many children, young people and their families. And there are many whose behaviour are labelled and misinterpreted by those expected to provide support: another seven-year-old girl who was repeatedly suspended for being ‘a bully’, when she had language and communication difficulties; a teenaged male student whose grandparents had to be creative as they searched for help.
I have met many of these parents including Kelly John and Mary Bastien. These parents remain focused on the job of raising their children in an atmosphere where little is accessible to most families with children and young people who are not meeting the standard set for the average child.
Inclusion as an education policy is relatively new to Trinidad and Tobago and seems generally to remain an ideal that is beyond our reach. While the Church is founded on a value for breaking down the barriers between people, we may need to question whether in Catholic education, remaining in the most prestigious schools, we have held to those values.
Since the release of this year’s SEA results, two of our secondary schools, St Anthony’s and Holy Cross have attracted some attention for accepting two boys with disabilities. In both cases, failure of the system was held up by tenacious parents who refused to give up on their children.
We must acknowledge that with the few with whom we celebrate there are hundreds/thousands more who do not have the means to ensure their child’s survival and even less to ensure achievement that is recognised and celebrated.
Mary Bastien, reflecting on her own journey, cites faith and education as very important in her pursuit of the best for Zahra. How though does a loving parent adjust to the closed doors, the inability or refusal of too many to consider her child as deserving of effort, in the midst of high demand for resources?
A major concern should also be what position children who have been neglected and denied the basic tools for successful living will assume as adults. This would have implications for the current social ills and ultimately the type of society we would like to build.
Spectrum of abilities
Directing the resources to the inclusion of children and young people in the mainstream environment appears to be as challenging as ensuring that special schools are equally well equipped. Perhaps it will be more helpful to consider examples of various models in which we can include children with different abilities without compromising the progress of others considered average and above.
It might be helpful to consider that meeting the needs of disabled children is not apart from meeting the needs of the rest of the population. This falls within a philosophy of inclusion in which we recognise that persons are essentially differently abled, with skills that even within one individual are not at the same level.
We are all on a spectrum of abilities and needs. Unless we are ready to draw the line and decide on creating a super race of persons, it may be time to face the reality of all of us as differently abled, with our own range of strengths and weaknesses. This perspective could assist us in becoming more open to persons with disabilities as we reflect on the fragility of our own state.
Especially as Christians, confronting disability may speak of our own journey. Catholic or not, do we believe that persons with physical, mental, intellectual disabilities, difficulties impacting on their health and development, emotional well-being and their behaviour and learning are equally entitled to life? This hinges on our position on the protection of all life and the follow-up action that this requires. As protectors of life, our pews should be filled with persons with disabilities, Mary argues.
The question then is, do we sow the seeds that breed discrimination and neglect of those who are different or do we work more assiduously on breaking down barriers and bringing people together? How we as Church can lead the way out of the increasingly elitist system in education may also be an urgent topic for our conversation throughout the archdiocese.
In our conversations, we may highlight the changes that we need to make in our physical and social infrastructure to cater not only for those who are most able but for all who are part of us. It should include those who have first-hand experience of living with disability. It should demand that we be willing to re-evaluate our priorities and look again at what is possible when together, we acknowledge that no-one can be left out in our desire for peace.
Dr Maraika Gooding is an educational and child psychologist. Her email: