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December 12, 2004

Disabled making greatest strides in education

From: Jamaica Observer, Jamaica - Dec 12, 2004

Claudienne Edwards
Sunday, December 12, 2004

THE greatest strides in empowering persons with disabilities in Jamaica appears to have been made in education.

Spearheading the drive to improve the education and quality of life of persons with disabilities is a Special Education Unit within the education ministry headed by Salomie Evering.

A student takes instructions from a tutor at the Caribbean Centre for the Deaf in the Cassia Park area of Kingston.

Education for this sector revolves around three special schools for persons with different types of disabilities - schools for blind, deaf and mentally retarded persons. In addition, there are seven special education units attached to government-run all-age and primary schools which cater to children with a wide range of learning disabilities.

"You have a few mildly mentally retarded students and they are students that are drawn from regular schools and are in the programme for say, two years, and then they are mainstreamed," Evering said.

The Jamaica School for the Blind, run by the Salvation Army and the only school of its kind in the island, is a government grant-aided boarding facility for students who are blind or visually impaired.

Approximately 156 students attend the school at Mannings Hills Road in Kingston, which is classified as a primary school but has students up to age 18. Children at the school who sit and pass the GSAT - Grade Six Achievement Test - then go on to high school.

There are 18 blind students attending high schools or tertiary institutions. Two attend Calabar High School, three are at The Queen's School, five at Jamaica College, one at Meadowbrook High, two at Holy Childhood, one at Kingston College, two at St Andrew Technical, two at Dunoon High, one at Mico College, two at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona campus and three at the Abilities Foundation.

All the Braille and large print material for the blind is prepared by the special education unit. "We do all the support materials for the blind in Braille and large print. The textbooks for all national examinations are reproduced in Braille and large prints in support of the programme for the blind," Evering disclosed.

She said that the needs of the blind were taken care of at every level of the education system, including providing persons to read or write for them, as well as CXC and UWI examination papers in Braille. "We provide readers and writers for them. If they are not able to write, we provide the writer for them but no interpretation is given for them," she said.

The UWI also has special facilities for blind students. "The computer laboratory and library have very good facilities for blind students, said Ransford Wright, the director of the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities (JCPD). The several schools for the deaf include a high school, The Lister Mair Gilby School for the Deaf, and the Danny Williams and St Christopher's Schools for the Deaf.

A pre-school is attached to the Danny Williams School, as also is a satellite at the Excelsior Primary School. Additionally, there are three private Christian non-denominational schools for the deaf which the government helps with support material and a "little funding".

One of these schools is the Caribbean Christian Centre for the Deaf in Knockpatrick, Manchester, while there is another at Granville, St James. The third school is in the Cassia Park area of Kingston. From the reclassification and restructuring of the School of Hope for the mentally retarded at Papine has emerged six special schools to meet the educational needs of this group of persons.

These schools are the Ronald Lopez School of Special Education at Hope Estate, Papine, the Windsor School of Special Education, the Woodlawn School of Special Education in Mandeville, the Llandilo School of Special Education in Westmoreland and the Carberry Court Special School at Hope Estate.

Evering said that each of the schools had several satellites attached to other schools across the island and varied in size from one to three classes. At these institutions, the cut-off age is 18 but it was not unusual to find students up to age 21.

"These children are taught up to the age of 18, officially, but we go up to 21 because sometimes we find that at 18 they are still learning some more and we think they should spend a little more time so we go up to the age of 20/21," Evering explained.

But Sherine Barnes, a social worker with the Jamaica Association For Mental Retardation, was of the view that the government should do more for severely mentally retarded children.

"A child who is severely retarded has to stay at home, they cannot come to school; parents find that difficult to work out. Because of the challenges posed by these children, the parents have to stay home with them," she said.

"I would like to see the government or an agency provide a home for these special children to allow the parents to work out and they could go home on weekends." She said that the schools for the mentally retarded lacked specialist staff who were trained in speech therapy and physiotherapy.

"These children have problems with speech, but if a therapist can train them they would be able to develop speech and communication patterns. They also need physiotherapists who would help their motor development," Barnes explained.

A psychological assessor should also be on staff, she said. "We get help from the UWI but we would benefit more if we had one on staff." Evering was also concerned that most of the educational institutions were still based in Kingston and a few other urban centres.

She was of the view that the programmes should be decentralised into the rural areas, to allow disabled students to gain access to training in environments where they had family support.

"One of the big problems. is that because there is only one school for the blind, the students are taken from their communities and brought to Kingston. We know that in terms of support for them if they are going to be educated in their communities, we will have to look at personnel and material and so forth and we will have to explore that for them," she noted.

Responding to the concern, the ministry is reportedly considering placing some of the staff members of the special education unit in other regions, to prevent people in the rest of the island from having to come to Kingston,

"There are some students, mainly in Kingston, who, when they are assessed and found to have difficulties and they need special exam conditions, we have centres in Kingston," Evering noted. "We want this to be all over Jamaica because we don't want them to have to come from Westmoreland to sit the exam in Kingston, so we have to look seriously at that."

She said that the ministry was in the process of developing a policy and drafting legislation to ensure that the needs of the sector were met.

A draft of the legislation has already been prepared but the ministry must have extensive consultation with teachers, agencies, parents and employers and get their recommendation before the document can be fine-tuned.

"We should be finished within the 2005/2006 financial year," she told the Sunday Observer.

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