Dr Jean Antoine-Dunne NODES Founder “Towards Inclusion, Integration Of People With Disabilities”

Tuesday 24 December 2019 Jean Antoine – Dunne
Published by Trinidad and Tobago NEWSDAY


ON DECEMBER 19 at the University of the West Indies, the Network for Outreach and Disability Education and Sensitisation (NODES) hosted a symposium that asked the question, What Now? Where Now, of the revised National Policy on Persons with Disabilities. Speakers were Senator Paul Richards, Glen Niles, Ria Mohammed-Davidson and Nicole Cowie. The discussion was rich and focused on the need for reform of legislation.

The 2019 policy incorporates many of the changes sought by reviewers over the past three years, in particular in relation to social inclusion and equity. For example, it seeks to, “Ensure that the appropriate legislation is in place to ensure an inclusive education system which does not discriminate against persons with disabilities but enables participation in mainstream education at all levels.”

As Prof Beth Harry notes in Childhood Disability, Advocacy, and Inclusion in the Caribbean – A Trinidad and Tobago Case Study, the curriculum and its focus on exams militate against inclusion in schools in TT. It needs to be said, though, that the policy document only mandates a restructuring of the delivery of the curriculum, as opposed to fundamental changes in focus or content. But inclusion is nonetheless the ultimate aim in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Harry’s book from its title would seem to be in accord with the principle of inclusion. However, the word “inclusion” here is misleading. At the core of this book is a strategic interlinking of narratives from parents, advocates and professionals, which are used to demonstrate why inclusion cannot work in TT.

A quotation from Helen Humphrey, the grandmother of a woman with Down syndrome, underscores this: “The children are special and there’s no way they could completely fall into the regular school system. Don’t care how they try (p.106).

Anecdotes by parents in TT who tried normal schooling 40 years ago and in the last decade, only to give up, combined with stories of being mocked, appear to make powerful arguments for protected environments such as the Immortelle Centre.

There are people with profound disabilities who require long-term specialised care and the book gives an insight into the caring ethos of the Immortelle. But there are many who can progress within mainstream environments. The social fabric of TT does not exclude this, though this book suggests otherwise.

We now know after decades of research and experience that children with Down syndrome and with autism develop when they are placed in environments that set high developmental goals, such as mainstream schooling.

Yes, people with disabilities have faced abuse and discrimination here and in the wider world, but change has come internationally by enacting legislation such as that proposed in the national policy document which states that there is often a high level of physical and sexual abuse and other forms of abuse such as financial and emotional abuse.

Article 16 of the UNCRPD emphasises that state parties must therefore ensure that the required measures are put in place to prevent such treatment of persons with disabilities.

This kind of legislation would indeed need to flow from the traditions within our society, where historically those who were disfranchised were given opportunities for advancement through structured development plans.

Harry calls for an indigenous system and notes that, in our society, markers of power and class lead to the situation where to be “black, disabled and poor will constitute barriers far more daunting than those faced by a child in a privileged family” (p. 242).

It is significant that many of the schools named here have been the result of the patronage of influential individuals. Since education has been the leavening agent in our society from the time of Eric Williams, it is logical that public education should become the enabling force for those who are disabled.

Harry’s call, however, is specifically for special education services as “a required and integral component of the education system,” and excludes inclusive education. Will “the creation of an ongoing explicit public awareness agenda for valuing and respecting individuals with disabilities” succeed, if those to be valued and respected remain outside society?

Should we agree with this author that the education system and ineptitude of governments and the attitudes of society make the rights to inclusion and integration impossible? Is it the function of government to make special education schools a priority, as opposed to supporting those people who wish to attend mainstream schools?

We certainly can agree that it is a public disgrace that those who work with people with disabilities must beg and use their contacts to facilitate their work. Governments and the attitude of the public must change so that all children have the right to an education and a full life. But the current lack of rights does not justify exclusion or a hardening of structures of exclusion.

At present there are many parents who are clamouring for the introduction of school supports, so that their child with a disability can become part of normal human existence with all the rights to a family and home.

If parents succeed in getting these supports through strenuous effort, and the curriculum is forced to adapt, as it must, then all those currently excluded by a system that only serves the “brightest and the best” will benefit, not just people with disabilities. Who knows how this will change our society?

Dr Jean Antoine-Dunne is the founder and first chairperson of the Network for Outreach and Disability Education and Sensitisation

Towards Inclusion, Integration Of People With Disabilities