DR RADICA MAHASE
AS 2018 comes to an end and we reflect on the status of special needs in TT, we can build on the positive things that happened and try to rectify the negative ones. Probably one of the most positive things for special needs in TT this year was that it became a more frequent topic in the public domain. Throughout the year, there were newspaper articles highlighting various celebrations, organisations and individuals. Newsday took the lead in this by allowing me to write this column on a weekly basis. Special needs wasn’t only highlighted at special times when we were celebrating a specific awareness day, it was in the newspaper throughout the year.
There were other positive things as well. Towards the end of the year, the Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust opened its wheelchair ramps. This was definitely one of the most positive changes for special needs in TT as it was the first outdoor, environmentally-focused space to become more accessible to everyone. This year we also saw shopping centres such as South Park and C3 Centre sowing their interest in special needs as they collaborated on outreach booths and sensory Santa respectively.
In the grand scheme of things these may appear irrelevant and insignificant but given that every little thing counts, these are quite important in the special needs world as they represent steps towards more positive changes. Each one of these represents a move towards better recognition of those with special needs in our country. The hope is that recognition of this vulnerable group will lead to changes at the policy level and in society’s perceptions.
On the other hand, one of the most negative things for those with special needs in TT in 2018 was the cuts to the social welfare grants made by the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services. These impacted immensely on a portion of our society that is most marginalised and vulnerable. As we move forward into 2019, here are five most important resolutions that TT can make for those with special needs:
Restart the social welfare grants – won’t it be nice if the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services can get its act together and put things in place so those with special needs can access these grants? While I understand that the Ministry is restructuring the grant (as mentioned by the Minister in the budget debate) the fact is this process needs to be accelerated because while all the talks are occurring at a ministerial level, many families are struggling to survive on a daily basis.
Make various types of therapies accessible within the public health care system. The ministry of Health needs to step up now and make at least speech and occupational therapies equally available within the public health care system specifically for those with special needs. Otherwise parents are forced to pay exorbitant fees by private therapists and then therapies cannot be accessed by all.
Make a good quality education available and accessible to everyone. This can be done when the Ministry of Education develops a sounds education policy which caters to the needs of those with different abilities. This policy needs to transcend theory and actually be put into practice. It can include things like wheelchair accessibility in schools, the provision of teaching aides for those with special needs, assistance for the visually impaired and sign language classes for teachers, etc.
Make public spaces more accommodating towards those with special needs. So many little things can be done to achieve this – more activities in malls and shopping centres; more parking spots for those with wheelchairs as well as other special needs; activities throughout the year not just at specific times; wheelchair accessibility at public beaches and sign language as a subject in secondary schools are just some ideas.
Develop and implement a National Policy on special needs. This cannot just be in theory or on paper. This policy has to be one that is translated into everyday things in our society and incorporates all the other resolutions stated so far It must be an inter-ministerial one that is geared towards creating a more friendly, accommodating country for those with special needs; one that will allows individuals with special needs to lead fulfilling lives, as active member so f our country.
A new year usually brings feelings of hope, here’s hoping that 2019 is a great one for those with special needs in TT! Happy New Year!
Dr Radica Mahase
Founder/Director, Support Autism T&T