THE surprise expressed by Education Minister Anthony Garcia at the challenges faced by young Rihanna Reed is echoed by any citizen of TT who has seen the challenges faced by children with special needs locally. Garcia was reported to have said: “I’m surprised because there are facilities for autistic children…” That’s a statement that’s being hotly contested by the parents of autistic and other special-needs children nationwide. Comments on that Newsday report challenged the Education Minister to reveal the locations of these facilities.
Young Rihanna’s situation is hardly unique and Garcia’s expression of concern rings hollow when measured against the loud calls in the disability support sector for his ministry to do what it has promised to support the few special needs schools that form a critical part of the TT education system.
Education got an increase in the 2019 budget from $7.2 billion to $7.4 billion, a jump that Garcia promised would target special needs children. This announcement paralleled the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services’ abrupt notice that the special child grant of $1,150 would no longer be given to caregivers whose salaries were above an absurdly low threshold. For such parents, already struggling to care for children in an education and care environment which is largely the province of private sector initiatives, it was a crippling blow.
The approach of all ministries to special needs education and support is, to put it mildly, wanting. The government’s approach to special needs children seems governed by the notion that it is managing a burden instead of engaging with the promise of potential.
When TT’s Hearing Impaired Association celebrated its 75th anniversary in July, it did so under a roof that was severely damaged, making access to the Dretchi building’s top floor inaccessible. The organisation had been waiting for two years for the government to make good on its promise to help with repairs.
At the social services level, parents are far too often met with an attitude of condescension inspired by a fundamental misunderstanding of the challenges of raising a special needs child to his or her full potential successfully. There isn’t even a definitive study of the percentage of children in this country who are properly classified as special needs students. A 1984 study put it at 16.1 per cent, while a 2013 UWI analysis put the figure at 37 per cent. Support Autism, a local NGO, notes that 61 per cent of its members’ children are not at school.
There are copious facts available to challenge the Education Minister’s claim of adequate facilities. What’s needed now is for the minister to challenge his ministry to meet their civil obligations to all the children of this nation.