DR RADICA MAHASE
“MY name is Maya Kirti Nanan and I am 16-years-old. I want a better country for my brother. Why should he always be at a disadvantage because he has autism? I think that adults should listen to the youth because we are the future of this country and we know what we want this country to be. I don’t think that adults in TT are very concerned about those with special needs. I do know that if we are given the opportunity we can make a difference though.”
Today, Monday August 12 is International Youth Day and today Support Autism T&T celebrates all our youth volunteers. The amazing youths who have helped us to create a formidable autism advocate group. We currently have over 200 youth volunteers from various educational institutions who belong to our Siblings and Friends Network. They are the core of the NGO and they conceptualise, organise and execute all our activities/events. Today we recognise their roles in making TT a country that is inclusive of those with special needs.
August 12 was designated as International Youth Day by the UN General Assembly in 1999. According to the UN, it “Serves as an annual celebration of the role of young women and men as essential partners in change, and an opportunity to raise awareness of challenges and problems facing the world’s youth.” The 2019 theme is ‘Transforming education’ and the aim is to “highlights efforts to make education more inclusive and accessible for all youth, including efforts by youth themselves.” The UN notes that, “There are currently 1.8 billion young people between the ages of ten and 24 in the world. This is the largest youth population ever.”
The Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs states that there are approximately 450,556 young people between the ages of 12 and 29 in TT. This represents 34.2 per cent of the national population (2014). Actual data for the number of youth with special needs is lacking. A 1984 survey estimated that children with special needs aged three to 16 years was 16.1 per cent of the population. At a recent public hearing of the Joint Select Committee, the Ministry of Education stated that at least 3,735 students in Trinidad and Tobago require special education services.
These statistics do not represent the realities of those with special needs in TT – in one case the data is outdated, in the other case there are no precise and structured data collection mechanisms in place. However, we can all agree that more emphasis need to be place on national youth development in terms of education, sports, culture, etc. We can also agree that our country has not given any importance to the creation of opportunities for youths with special needs. The mere fact that we do not even have proper data for this group speaks to the lack of interest, commitment to and desire to focus on youths with special needs.
While some of our youths with special needs might be able to advocate for themselves, many cannot. As Maya noted, “My brother cannot stand up for himself. He cannot demand better treatment or more opportunities. He is non-verbal and might not be able to say what he needs but I am not. I have a voice and I will speak on his behalf. I will be his advocate and I will demand a better society and a better country for him.”
The members of the Siblings and Friends Network, especially those with siblings/relatives with special needs share this general sentiment. They understand that they can be the source of change in our country. Chelsi Torres, 17-years-old stated, “Youths can play a major role in making special needs more inclusive in TT. We have the power to influence other youths with whom we interact; getting the attention of our peers and adults around us and influencing them to pay attention to special needs on the whole. Also, in the process we develop a better understanding of individuals with special needs and we learn to be better human beings.”
In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “Today, we celebrate the young people, youth-led organisations… who are working to transform education and uplift young people everywhere.” And of course, I cannot say it better than former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, “I am calling on young people to speak out and listen and I am urging leaders to listen.”
Dr Radica Mahase
Founder/director, Support Autism T&T