DR RADICA MAHASE
IN the sitting of the Senate on October 27, Independent Senator Paul Richards, in his presentation on the 2021 budget, asked, “Are we really serving the people, all the people, every creed and every race, every sector, equitably; all the people of TT, to the best of our individual and collective abilities.
"Are we really championing the needs of the vulnerable, the poor, the homeless, the elderly, those being abused, the sick and indigent, socially displaced, the differently abled, children with special needs and children with learning disabilities…do these groups matter less than other groups in TT?”
If we look at the budget presentation by the minister of finance every year, it would appear that we certainly do not have a history of providing for the needs of the most vulnerable populations in our country in our annual national budget. Historically, governments have been crying that TT doesn’t have money but yet we see millions being spent on projects that only benefit a small portion of the population, if at all. If any government really wants to help the most vulnerable in society then it will find a way to allocate money in an equitable manner and manage the country’s limited funds in such a way that those who really need help will be provided for.
In the 2021 budget, education received the biggest chunk of the pie, with an allocation of $7.93 billion. Traditionally, education is always a substantial part of the national budget, yet it is the one area where inequities are most visible. How much of the billions allocated for education will go towards special needs education?
A part of this budget should be allocated especially for the education of children with special needs in TT and this should include all types of special needs, both visible and hidden. Here are some ways in which the Ministry of Education should use part of its 2021 financial allocation:
Increase the number of teachers' aides employed and distribute to students with all levels of special needs. Parents having to wait three and four years for teachers' aides for their children is utterly ridiculous. That waiting period is only denying a child the opportunity to develop intellectually.
Increase the number of trained personnel in Student Support Services Division. It is time that the Ministry of Education acknowledges that special educational need is actually a real thing, that there is a growing percentage of TT’s children who have special educational needs and that it is the country’s duty to provide for their education. Thus, Student Support Services Division has to be a stronger department and this can only happen when its work is recognised as crucial in the provision of equal education opportunities.
Develop a formal homeschool method to reach those children with special needs who are not enrolled in formal education institutions, whether public or private. Budget allocation needs to go outside of just formal education institutions.
It is imperative that the Ministry of Education provide some level of education to those children who are at home, those who might have attended a formal institution before and had to stop for whatever reasons as well as those who never stepped inside of a school, public or private. The ministry can invest in educational devices with apps appropriate to the child’s developmental age, educational packages containing craft items, etc, that can be distributed to each child.
Invest in the resources required to continue with the implementation of the Inclusive Education policy. The Ministry of Education needs to employ more counsellors and therapists as well as teachers specialising in special needs education so that more children with special needs can attend public schools.
A true implementation of the policy will mean a movement away from just "model schools" to an increase in the number of schools in each education districts catering to students with special educational needs. For this to happen, some part of that $7.93 billion need to be pumped into special needs education.
We have ignored special needs education too long in this country and unless we start to believe that individuals with special needs can make valuable contributions to society and to national development, we will continue to treat them as if though they matter less than others in our country.
Dr Radica Mahase is the founder/director of Support Autism T&T