‘There are now mechanisms in Trinidad and Tobago that allow people who are blind or visually impaired to uncover their true potential’
DR JEAN ANTOINE-DUNNE
THEY SAID it was the “power of love” and certainly few thought it was truly possible. But it was. Twelve young boys who could not swim and their football coach were rescued last week from a cave in Thailand before the monsoon rains made it impossible. The whole world watched the operation at each of its stages, which included teaching the young boys to scuba dive.
Experts from around the world came and lent both support and help. And the world saw a first in rescue operations. One person died during the operation. He was a cave diver delivering oxygen tanks who suffered a heart attack. So the joy was tinged with sadness.
During that same week in Trinidad the Blind Welfare Association and the Minister of Education joined in congratulating three young people, Ariel Lewis, Jaidon Vincent and Akshay Sirj, who passed their SEA exams, despite the fact that they are visually impaired.
This too demonstrated the power of love. One mother who is also visually impaired spoke about leaving home in Valencia every morning, taking the bus that came from the Blind Welfare Association, travelling with her daughter to San Juan and walking with her to school and then getting back on the bus and going to work.
All three children succeeded against the odds, and did so because they were able to harness support and the love of their parents and grandparents. They also availed of systems already in place that included having a reader for the examination.
There are now mechanisms in Trinidad and Tobago that allow people who are blind or visually impaired to uncover their true potential. Congratulations to Minister Anthony Garcia who immediately noted that this was not a first in terms of the SEA and that the Ministry of Education has been making strident attempts to ensure that children who are born blind or who become visually impaired have the tools to learn and are no longer objects of charity.
As my readers would know, people from the blind and visually impaired community have demanded equality and justice for many decades and the introduction of software into Nalis was a significant step in this direction.
According to Nalis, “services are available in large print, Braille, audio formats, recorded books and talking books. The assistive technology employed includes the JAWS (Job Access with Speech) voice synthesiser, Magic Professional Screen Magnifier for those with low vision, the Braille Embosser, which translates text to Braille and printed material, and the Poet OCR reading machine for reading documents to the visually challenged.”
Nalis also has special research aids on autism and is accessible to wheelchairs.
It is good that as a country we are making such enormous strides in redressing injustice. We are now considering the removal of marijuana as a banned substance; the criminalisation of homosexuality is now deemed unconstitutional and some of our esteemed leaders are even calling for the removal of the death penalty. But to quote a recent commentator, “Human rights are indivisible, a rich tapestry of rights. You cannot cherry-pick rights and freedoms for people for some groups and not for others.”
In Trinidad and Tobago we are quite selective in what we perceive to be human rights. There is, for example, still very little done to assist people who are deaf to become fully educated or to have meaningful careers.
When I was researching and later filming my documentary Disabled/MisLabled in Trinidad, I interviewed members of the DEAF community over a period of months about their lives and their rights. They were very vocal in their condemnation of inequalities, in particular in relation to education and the justice system.
Dr Ben Braithwaite who lectures in linguistics at the UWI pointed out that the issue is predominantly one of language. The English language is a foreign language to those who are deaf, because it is not a language that deaf people know.
Members of DEAF have called for the introduction of sign language throughout Trinidad and Tobago. The problem of access to education and the law through a language that would enable the deaf to be on an equal footing is a significant one and needs to be addressed.
The bottom line is that a person with a physical disability is not a person who lacks the capacity to be educated. The media play a significant part in stereotyping that, according to one UK expert in a recent symposium on disability, treats and speaks of people with disabilities as either heroes or victims.
A person with an intellectual disability or a physical disability does not lack the capacity to learn nor is it a spectacular achievement when he or she accomplishes what is the norm. It is only spectacular because we as a nation have made it difficult for those who live with a disability to lead normal lives. What is needed is a combined will and determination to bring people who are still locked in caverns of societal ignorance to appear in the full light of society. This is no “mission impossible.”