OVER THE years, the challenges have been endless for him.
First, there was no speech therapist. Then, there were no teaching aides.
Then came the attitude of the teachers. Some did not want to teach an autistic child; one threatened to file a complaint. A few tried, but still he was kept back while children around him advanced. He is now 12 but will not be ready for Secondary Entrance Assessment work any time soon.
When it comes to understanding the problems of the education system, we can learn a lot from the case of Justin, an autistic child whose situation was highlighted on Monday in her weekly Newsday column by Dr Radica Mahase.
By Dr Mahase’s account, Justin’s parents cannot afford private schooling.
They are at the mercy of an education system in which officials like to boast about taking action to cater for children with special needs – while delays, bureaucracy and a shortage of trained personnel render such boasts hollow.
If aides are in short supply, excuses are overflowing.
After filling out the requisite application, Justin’s parents have been waiting three years now for staff to assist him in the classroom. Every time a query is made, they are informed by Student Support Services that no aide is available.
All children should be afforded an equal opportunity to learn, no matter their background or needs. That is why the framers of our constitution saw it fit to enshrine the right of a parent or guardian to a school of their own choice for the education of their child.
In a situation in which education is routinely allocated billions in the budget – more than $6 billion last year alone – the standard of care being offered to our children with special needs borders on the scandalous.
Justin’s case is an indictment of the system.
Clearly, the need for reform extends well beyond the issues of curriculum change and providing laptops.
In this regard, the recent recommendations made to the Ministry of Education by the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) point to the breadth of work that has to be done to ensure the system as a whole gets a better grade.
Among the Maha Sabha’s useful suggestions was one for a needs-assessment exercise to give a true snapshot of the difficulties on the ground for everyone involved. Such an assessment must be as wide as possible, extending to the denominational boards and including students.
Also requiring attention are the school feeding programme, the role of parents in online learning and an updated disciplinary code.
It is deeply disconcerting that the school term has opened with so many issues still live.
Special needs require a special effort, yes. But the need to address all of these issues did not require special foresight.