With this column, I have been highlighting the fact that special needs must be elevated into mainstream discussions. I have also looked at the inadequacy of special education programmes and teachers as well as avenues for funding.
I became aware of another issue following participation in a recent radio discussion. The discussion showed that for some policymakers and mobilisers, all children with special needs are grouped in a disability category. I think it is safe to say that a child with a disability will have special needs, but not all special needs children with a developmental challenge have disabilities. Likewise, a child may have a disability and not have a developmental challenge.
When all children are grouped together, their unique needs will not be identified and will therefore not be met. This is especially close to home as it relates to my micro preemie child. The more I research, the more I see that micro preemies are seldom researched and as such their ensuing challenges often get grouped in other categories. Disability challenges can be very different from developmental challenges and each must be given the full attention they deserve.
Some persons may say it's impossible to cater to the unique needs of all children. I would disagree. For if every child can learn and every child must learn, then schools must be equipped to at least identify that there is a problem. Sometimes there are subtle cases where, for example, a child displays hyperactivity in the classroom. His teacher may see him as a disruptive troublemaker, when in fact that child may have ADHD, which is treatable. It therefore means any possible issue must be identified and properly diagnosed taking unique challenges into concern.
Solutions must then tend towards either (1) the child stays in the regular classroom with a special individual programme; (2) be in a specialised class in regular school, as I am doing with my son; or (3) be in a special education programme at a specialised school.
What must not happen is that they (1) get overlooked and are kept in a regular programme where they are unable to learn; or (2) are identified as having a special need but unable to participate in a special programme because of lack of resources including having a trained special education teacher on staff who is able to develop individual learning plans; or (3) identified as having a problem and be grouped in the wrong category of special need. Children have varied challenges and all must be met. Some schools are doing it why not all?
I came across an interesting Observer article recently with some data to support my point where Dr Michele Meredith, speaking at the Nathan Ebanks Foundation 7th annual special education needs conference & learning expo, said of the more than 4,000 children in Jamaica diagnosed with special needs, about 300 are being served in the Ministry of Education's seven special education units.
"While there are other private institutions with special education departments, the majority of children requiring some sort of supplementary accommodation are being taught in general education classrooms. To compound matters, only about 200 of the more than 20,000 teachers in general education are trained special educators", she said.
She said there is a lack of legislative foundation on which to deliver special education programmes and services and a limited collaboration among sectors and agencies that cater to children with special needs. She spoke to the need to make the necessary intervention to improve special education in Jamaica.
If I can be accommodated, it is my intent to make contact with this unit at the Ministry of Education to see what additional information can be had to help my readers and myself and to explore what avenues are available where we can help to find and effect solutions.
Thanks to all the readers who read this article and have sent e-mails of encouragement and to just share their personal stories. I appreciate recommendations that will be useful for this space. Remember, no matter how great the challenge these special little ones are here for a reason and we will continue to fight to find avenues that will enable them to fulfil their full potential.
Sara, mom of four year old Amari, is an advocate for children with developmental delays. Amari was born three months early at one pound, and was hospitalised for three and a half months after birth. Check this space every couple weeks as Sara tackles the issue of children with special needs. E-mail her at email@example.com.