Leading The Charge

Leading The Charge
NODES host landmark disability conference
April 2015 Jean Antoine-Dunne

Over the years many individuals have made efforts to change the mind-set and the structures of Trinidad society in relation to disability. However, while there is often goodwill and sympathy, there has been no cohesive leadership to ensure real transformation. Yes, parents no longer abandon their children with Down syndrome at the gates of the Lady Hochoy Home, but it is still likely that a person with a disability will be stared at, excluded or made to feel both inept and inhuman.

Dr Jean Antoine-Dunne, who founded NODES (The UWI Network and Outreach for Disability Education and Sensitisation) in 2014, feels that the many dispersed disability activists here on the St Augustine Campus, if they work together, can provide a powerful lobby group to motivate the public and to ensure policy change and true inclusion in education, the workplace and community.

The conference “Towards Social Integration: Rights, Roles, Recognition for Persons with Disabilities”, scheduled for April 23 and 24, is a key strategy in this group’s activism. It focuses on human rights and on changing public perception about the capabilities of persons with disabilities who, by and large, experience pity rather than equity. They have few rights. The Equal Opportunities Act in its current form may be seen to actively discriminate against persons with disabilities in that it gives much leeway to employers to refuse employment to persons with disabilities.

There is no centre to which parents can be directed for speech therapy, physiotherapy or counselling. In Trinidad those who can afford to do so, travel abroad for help.

Neither is there a structure to support persons who seek to be educated in the mainstream. There have been successive draft policies on education of persons with special needs, but no policy. There are few posts for special education teachers in mainstream schools, despite the fact that UTT has a degree programme in Special Education and there is a desperate need for special teachers in many schools. A recent announcement by the Ministry proposes to redeploy one hundred and nine of these teachers to fill the need of students referred to the Ministry of Education. How this will be structured is yet to be announced.

The focus on the need for change and leadership reflects the activism of the founding members of NODES who came originally from three faculties: Humanities and Education, Science and Technology, and Social Sciences.

For Dr Shirin Haque of the Faculty of Science and Technology, the focus is persons with obsessive behaviour disorder and depression. Dr Innette Cambridge runs the Disability Studies Unit in the Faculty of Social Sciences and organised the first “Think Tank” on disability in the region. Her pioneering work led to the inauguration of the unit she now heads and to the development of special services for persons with disabilities at The UWI. It is no surprise that her former student, Jacqueline Huggins, also a member of NODES, is the coordinator of the UWI Academic Support/Disabilities Liaison Unit.

Dr Benjamin Braithwaite, who is a linguist at The UWI, runs a class at the Lloyd Best Institute in English Language acquisition for the deaf, and he and Dr Paula Morgan are both lecturers in the Faculty of Humanities. The network includes Joanna Owen, Major David Benjamin (Director of The UWI’s Sports and Physical Education Centre) and science graduate Anil Waithe.

Their varied interest groups are reflected in the programme. Eileen Dunne, who will address the conference on April 23 about her right to independence and a good life, has Down syndrome and has attended mainstream primary, secondary and tertiary education in Ireland. She is the recipient of many awards, including a Student of the Year Award from Cavan Institute. She is also a member of the National Advisory Council of Down Syndrome in Ireland.

Professor Elizabeth Harry who founded the Immortelle Children’s Centre, will speak on “Integration is a two-way street: Building reciprocity among communities” at the opening ceremony. Professor Gerard Hutchinson, a leading psychiatrist in the region, will give a feature address entitled: “Lifting the burden – the future of disability” on April 24.

The conference also hosts a roundtable discussion on “Mental health incidence, recognition and education in Trinidad and Tobago”. This is intended to generate discussion on what is called the “invisible” disability.

The first roundtable deals with the key idea of the conference, participation and integration, and a number of well-known figures have been invited to participate, including Barbadian Senator Kerry Ann Ifill, Dr Beverly Beckles, the CEO of Down Syndrome Ireland, Mr Patrick Clarke, and president of Down Syndrome Family Network, Mr Glen Niles.

The conference looks at the role of ministry and includes the Mother General of the Dominican Order, Sr Therese Antoine OP, Mikkel Trestrail, Doreen Anderson of the Baha’i Faith and representatives from the Muslim and Hindu communities.

There are several workshops and papers on topics as varied as speech pathology, services for the blind and visually impaired and the deaf, sports and state services, inclusive education, sexual abuse of women with disabilities, and discrimination in areas such as employment. Free events include the premiere of the documentary DisAbled Mislabeled.

Persons wishing to attend the full sessions, and workshops should register online by April 14. There is a nominal fee of TT$300. The public is invited to attend feature lectures and roundtable discussions free of charge. This is possible in part through the patronage of persons such as the Honorary Counsel of Ireland, Mr Brian O’Farrell.

The Campus Principal, Professor Clement Sankat, has donated ten scholarships for persons with disabilities. Applications for this grant should be clearly marked GRANT aid and addressed to Jacqueline.huggins@sta.uwi.edu

Website address: sta.uwi.edu/conferences/15/towardssocialintegration/

Leading The Charge by Jean Antoine-Dunne, published UWI TODAY