THE EDITOR: In our community paediatrics clinics at the South-West Regional Health Authority, 90 per cent of the referrals are for children with developmental concerns and disabilities. Forty per cent of our patient work pertains to children on the autism spectrum. Twenty per cent pertain to children with ADHD. We also see children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, learning disability and other developmental conditions. On a daily basis we meet parents of special needs children.
The Ministry of Education Student Support Services along with the schools are tasked with providing the necessary supports for special needs children in our inclusive education system. I have met many of the people who work at the support services and they are very dedicated and hard working. The ministry actively provides concessions for exams for children with special educational needs.
The problem is that enough resources are not being allocated to provide the optimal supports for children with special needs in our schools towards the best quality of life and outcomes for them. For decades we have pumped taxpayers’ money into tertiary education and free tertiary education and ignored special education.
Here is a list of service provisions that need addressing urgently:
* Funding to bolster the Student Support Services so that children with special educational needs can be better supported.
* Teacher aides are in gross short supply. Need for a teacher aide training programme and provision of adequate numbers of teacher aides in schools.
* Psych-educational assessments. Most children do not get psych-educational assessments due to the high cost ($5,000-7,000) privately. These assessments should be provided by the education system for free. The ministry needs to employ lots more psychologists. All children with special needs should also have structured individualised education plans done (IEPs). The psych-educational assessment is pivotal to inform IEPs.
* Need for more social workers, guidance officers and school counsellors.
* Need for an early intervention programme for children between zero-three years with special needs. This is non-existent in our education system or health system.
* More government remedial and special schools.
* Upgrading the skills of educators in the school system to manage children with special needs.
* Training of more special education teachers.
* A peer mentoring programme where peers are educated and sensitised to the needs of children with special needs.
* Provision of speech therapy and occupational therapy in the public health system.
* Greater allocation and easier accessibility of the special child grant tailored to the needs of the family.
* Provisions to facilitate the transition and integration of children with special needs from the education system into adult and work life.
* Funding to tertiary institutions regarding targeted training of human resources to meet the service demands for children with special needs, including a teacher aide training programme, a master’s level special education teacher training programme, autism-specific therapies, training of speech pathologists and occupational therapists, training of early intervention specialists, training of more physicians in child development.
This is just a short list of services that need to be bolstered or actualised.
I fully support the motion by Senator Paul Richards regarding education for children with special needs. It is high time that children and adults who are differently-abled receive equity and taxpayer funding be utilised to promote a better quality of life.
TT has signed and ratified the UN convention on the rights of people with disability; we must put action to words and find innovative ways to improve services for children and adults with disabilities.
Dr PRITHIVIRAJ BAHADURSINGH
consultant community paediatrician