DR RADICA MAHASE
ON October 17, TT observed International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. This day is designated by the United Nations in line with its first Sustainable Goal – No Poverty.
The UN notes that, “More than 700 million people, or ten per cent of the world's population, still live in extreme poverty today, struggling to fulfil the most basic needs like health, education, and access to water and sanitation, to name a few.” International Day for the Eradication of Poverty acknowledges that poverty is a violation of human rights.
Here in TT, it is difficult to quantify the exact number of people with autism and other special needs who live below the poverty index because of lack of prevalence reports, poverty has prevented many families from providing for the basic needs of their children.
First, there are parents and caregivers who have been unable to provide a basic education for their children as they do not have the money to pay for their children’s education. The Ministry of Education’s tune of "education for all" and "no child left behind" is actually a myth. The reality is that many parents/caregivers who cannot access a free, public school education for their children have to rely on private schools which are out of the reach of lower-middle- and lower-class parents.
According to one parent, “My son attended public primary school for three years. When he reached standard one, the principal and his teacher said that he was always disrupting the class and we needed to fix his behaviour and then bring him back. We took him for a few sessions of behavioural therapy and then we got him back in the school. After one term the principal told us that my son’s behaviour didn’t change and his teacher said that he won’t be able to learn anything and they couldn’t keep him in the school any more.
"We live in Rio Claro and the nearest private special needs school that we knew about was in San Fernando, and we couldn’t afford to pay for school fees and transport as well. He has been at home for the past five years.”
Another parent noted, “My child was doing really well in school. He had a teacher’s aide for one year and he enjoyed going to school. But then schools were closed and I couldn’t afford to buy him a computer so he uses my phone, but he gets headache from looking at the screen and he can’t keep up with the work.”
Secondly, poverty hinders a child’s access to therapy services. Speech and behavioural therapy are only available privately. Therapy ranges from $200 to $600 per one-hour session and it is estimated that a child should receive about 15 hours therapy for the week, depending on the child’s needs. Many middle-class parents struggle to afford therapy on a regular basis and most parents from lower income brackets simply cannot afford it, especially when you add transport costs.
One parent noted, “I have twin boys with autism and I can’t afford to send both of them for therapy so I have to rotate them, one week one will go the next week the other will go.”
Thirdly, poverty affects diet and nutrition, especially in the case where the child with autism has sensory feeding issues and special diet. This was especially visible in the months after covid19 restrictions were first implemented in TT. One parent noted, “I am a single parent and I don’t work for a lot of money but I was able to take care of my son. But then I lost my job. I survived on my savings for two months and then I was running down hampers anywhere because that was the only way I could feed my child. I couldn’t afford to buy vitamins for him or PediaSure. He started to get meltdowns more often and he couldn’t sleep properly.”
Despite the lack of data, there are families who are struggling to provide for their special need’s children. In order to achieve the UN’s goal of "no poverty" we can use Bangladesh as a model. Bangladesh has included in its five-year-plan, the creation of employment opportunities for adults with special needs; focus on special needs education; specialised healthcare for this population; access to opportunities for skills development and the promotion of inclusion at a national level. These are the kinds of topics we should be discussing in commemoration of International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.
Dr Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T