June 15th, 2016 marked yet another Common Entrance Day examination on the calendar. It represents another opportunity for grade sixers island-wide to advance to secondary school level, thereby continuing pursuit of a solid education. This should eventually qualify them to embark upon a fruitful career and build a secure life for themselves and their families. But how can this be achieved if each child’s unique skills and strengths are overlooked and not individually fostered, allowing them to attain success at what they do best? In the case of challenged children, whether mental or physical, the ideal solution would be for special provisions to be put in place to accommodate their specific needs.
In October of 2015, former Minister of Education, Human Resource Development and Labour, Dr. Robert Lewis represented Saint Lucia in Barbados as part of a delegation sponsored by the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB). There, he participated in a week-long study tour of special needs education arrangements.
He explained the aim of his visit to the Barbadian media: “What we really wanted to do is look at some of the institutional arrangements you have, as well as some of the policies that guide special needs education.” He thanked Dr. Denny of the CDB for the initiative, and ‘for accommodating them in terms of the schedule and doing all the logistics in terms of the institutions’.
Lewis stated, “I think the government of Saint Lucia needs to move in the direction to make better preparations for students with special needs in our country.” He expressed his hope that the CDB would be in a position so that when approached for funding, it would already be more amenable to it.
His synopsis of the visit was as follows: “I think Barbados must be commended for what it has done in terms of special education centres. What really impressed me was the fact that they have tried different models so that any parent could be in a position to choose what he/she thinks is the best fit for his/her child who needs special attention.”
The STAR was informed this week of imbalances within our own educational system whereby children of varying capabilities are placed within the same tutorial settings and expected to perform like the rest of their counterparts, despite their intellectual differences.
A recent incident brought to light was that of a mentally challenged student who was scheduled to sit the exams this week, overseen by a private invigilator at one of the exam centres, a situation which triggered debate from various angles.
We spoke with a teacher about the situation. “Special needs children or children with disabilities are placed within public schools which do not cater to their requirements,” she revealed. “While it is understandable that the driving force behind parents doing such is to prevent them from being ostracised, it places that child at a great disadvantage, as they are denied the opportunity to evolve healthily in a tailored setting, apt for their ultimate development.
“Some parents may be embarrassed to put their children in schools like Dunottar because they want their children to grow up feeling no less or different than others. However, if a child is intellectually challenged, I believe it is in his or her best interest to attend a school which provides a setting conducive to similar children, to ensure that he or she receives more specialised attention. This way, they have a much greater chance of being more productive and ultimately maximising their abilities to their fullest potential. For now, the reality is that our public schools in general just do not have all the targeted provisions to foster the practical and efficient growth of children who have special needs.”
Last October Barbadian Minister of Education, Science, Technology and Innovation, Ronald Jones referred to his country’s excellent mix of private and public special needs institutions. He emphasised that whatever they can do within the context of each child matters, as every child is important regardless of whatever that need is, special or otherwise.
With the incumbent government administration, perhaps appropriate systems can be put in place locally, introducing special needs accommodations into schools island-wide, both on an administrative and practical level. Where it is not possible to meet all the needs of all challenged or disabled students within a public school setting, the possibility of private institutions of learning and development should be considered. Through these collective means, youth who are mentally challenged can thereby receive skill-based training, where academic development may not necessarily be any option.
To quote the afore-mentioned teacher, “We cannot limit young people because of our own insecurities and hang-ups; neither can we ostracise them or deprive every child of personal growth and development. At the end of it all, it is the children who will suffer. A child’s shortcomings should be fairly acknowledged, in order for them to be rightfully addressed. This is the only way we, as a society, can do justice to every child and help to pave the most secure foundations for our future generations.”