Changing Attitudes About Disabilities

By Dr. Jean Antoine-Dunne

Recently I spoke to two disability advocates about the issues still surrounding those with disabilities in Trinidad. I had previously interviewed Francis and Laura Escayg for my documentary DisAbled/MisLabled, which was screened before His Excellency Anthony Carmona and his wife in 2015. President Carmona was most enthusiastic about the work and moved by the stories chronicled in that documentary. He promised his support. Nothing came of this.

In this documentary Francis, who is a film-maker and who produced Horace Ové’s Ghost of Hing King Estate in 2009, makes an extraordinary statement. He says that with the birth of his son, Isaiah, with severe disabilities his whole life changed and that he is now determined to devote himself to working for those with disabilities and raising awareness.

“I can quite easily tell you this is what I will be doing for the rest of my life. This is my life’s work.” These are stirring words, and words in Trinidad are cheap. We are great talkers, but often there is little action. Francis has sought to turn these words into an idea of community living for people with disabilities.

He has researched the matter and thinks that the Camphill model is best suited for our nation, where people with disabilities still have nowhere to go. Historically, adults with intellectual disabilities, and by this I do not mean mental illness, have been sent to St Ann’s and left there. Lady Thelma Hochoy began the Lady Hochoy Home in 1958 after she saw the plight of children with intellectual disabilities who were living with elderly people with mental illnesses, and other abandoned people, in what was then The House of Refuge.

The Lady Hochoy School has limited accommodation and it is a pity that the word “retarded” has not been removed from its vocabulary, but the institution continues to provide a necessary service of care. As yet, the idea that people with disabilities can live active, beneficial and productive lives within their communities has simply not taken hold in this warm country of ours.

There are a number of models that can be used for community housing and integrated living, but the two that stand out are the L’Arche model and Camphill. I am familiar with L’Arche having spent time with them and conversed at length with Maria Lezama from Arima who works as a spiritual counsellor for L’Arche in County Cork, Ireland.

She remains appalled at the fact that despite changes in attitudes to people with disabilities all over the world, Trinidad and Tobago has not developed any project for sustainable living for people with disabilities and in fact that the attitudes to people with disabilities remains one of charity or condescension with a dash of pity thrown in.

The L’Arche model is notable since as a Canadian-initiated international project and network it provides both financial aid and support for developing countries where there is either no funding or no willingness to fund housing and workshops for adults with disabilities. L’Arche also provides care facilities for children and adults with profound disabilities.

The biggest issue in Trinidad apart from an attitudinal one is that there are no systems in place for support for parents or for teachers. The money that comes from government is channelled into existing structures that are not really geared to integration within communities. There is also no growth or development of facilities for housing or providing work for adults with disabilities.

Charitable donations, in particular by corporate business, are also by and large channelled into existing institutions, in particular what residential care there is, or special schools. There is little suggestion that children and adults have a place within the society.

The offshoot of this is that people with disabilities continue to be marginalised. The idea of non-belonging becomes imbedded in the national psyche and people with disabilities remain isolated. Francis and Laura have begun a project to change these attitudes and to make provision for Isaiah and for people with disabilities, in particular after parents have died.

There is one common thought that is shared by every parent who gives birth to a child with a disability and this is: What will become of my child when I die?

Their model is one that incorporates a business idea, which will be self-sustaining.

Their project will provide homes and work for those who live within these communities and these communities will be part of the national society. They have applied for a grant of land from the State.

I wonder, though, whether, perhaps, some religious body, whose numbers are diminishing and who have unused property and land might consider leasing or donating a building and land to this or a like venture?

Published on NEWSDAY Sunday 21st January, 2018