News

Access denied - Disabled boy aces GSAT, but...

— high school place not secure

BY COREY ROBINSON Sunday Observer staff reporter robinsonc@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, September 02, 2012    

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WHEN the Michaelmas term starts tomorrow wheelchair-bound Jevan Wright won't be going off to high school despite successfully attaining a space based on his performance in the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT).

Jevan, now 13, was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy — a degenerative muscle disease — at age six. It has rendered him unable to walk and, while he can write with an effort, he is entirely reliant on the help of others.

Despite his physical and financial challenges Jevan's academic success earned him a place at the Spanish Town High School in St Catherine.

Bu he will not be able to attend because the school cannot handle a child with his disability.

"We have a multi-storey building so we are not outfitted for wheelchair access. He would not be able to access bathrooms and many of our classrooms, and so forth," said Clayton Hall, principal of Spanish Town High and newly-elected president of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA).

This information transformed Jevan's glee into heartbreak two months ago.

On Wednesday, the Jamaica Observer visited the Central Village hovel where Jevan and his mother, Olive Grant, live. There, the two sorted through a geometry set and notebooks she purchased for him to go to his new high school. However, the mother had not purchased any textbooks, as that would depend on whether or not she finds a school for her son.

An obviously dejected Jevan greeted this reporter, with eyes hidden behind a pair of sunglasses. He said that he thinks he is ugly without them — making relevant a suggestion by one of his doctors that constant counselling will be necessary if he is to cope with his medical condition.

"I am depressed because I want to go to school. I want to go to school," he muttered, as his mother lowered his sunglasses to reveal the gloom reflected in his eyes.

Jevan said he thought it unfair that he has been denied his rightful place at Spanish Town High — where he was placed based on his GSAT results — and that he likely wont get to attend Mona High — one of his chosen schools, either.

His mother has spent the last few months on a frustrating quest to find a school that is equipped to deal with his severe disability and one that will accept him.

"They said that it (Spanish Town High) has upstairs classrooms and he couldn't go up there with the wheelchair. Because of that they just couldn't accept him," said Grant, recounting a disappointing visit to the school in June.

Since then, Grant said she has explored all options within her ken to find a school for her son.

"I called the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Kingston and someone there sent me to the Special Education Unit in Old Harbour (St Catherine). I went there twice, and from there they sent me to Mona High (St Andrew)," she said, noting that initially she was happy with the Mona High placement.

For starters, she said, it is a single-storey facility and therefore can accommodate her son's wheelchair. It was also in the vicinity of the Mona Rehabilitation Centre, where he had many of his medical appointments, she added.

Grant told the Sunday Observer that when she visited Mona High, principal Antia Steer offered Jevan a place at the institution on condition that his mother provide a letter stating how he would be transported to and from school each day.

It unfolded in that meeting that Grant would not be able to charter a private taxi to take Jevan to school daily, and, as a result, Grant said the principal suggested that he be put to board at the Mona Rehabilitation Centre. From there, Steer proposed, he would be able to attend school on time and with less hassle.

But his mother has found fault with that proposal. She refuses to "dump" her child at the Mona Rehabilitation Centre, she said.

"Listen, he is my child; I know his needs. He calls me more than 2,000 times for the night, and every time I get up and answer," said Grant.

"They are not going to treat him the same there. This minute he calls them to fix his foot and the next minute he calls them to fix his neck. We are all humans; they are going to get tired of him," she said, shrugging her shoulders.

Grant said she opted instead to utilise a service provided by the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) for persons with disabilities. But the school would still require a letter from the bus company to that effect.

Still, after weeks of trying to get such a letter, Grant's quest has not borne fruit. She said that visits to JUTC offices in Kingston and St Catherine provided her with no meaningful assistance.

Today, without the letter, and with the new school year inching forward, Grant grows uneasy by the hour. To make her anxiety worse, Steer told the Sunday Observer that even with the letter from the JUTC, she wouldn't be able to guarantee Jevan a place at Mona High until later this week.

"It (placement) is a challenge as we speak because the orientation is on Monday (tomorrow) and I would have to see what is happening in terms of my grade seven intake before I can make a decision," said Steer, explaining that Grant waited too long before returning to speak with her.

Steer made it clear, however, that at no time was Jevan rejected by Mona High. She noted that the school, which she said is "the only single floor school in the Corporate Area", caters to at least eight wheelchair-bound students, many of whom board at the Mona Rehabilitation Centre.

"But it is as if she (Grant) just doesn't want to let go of him," said Steer, in reference to Grant's refusal to let Jevan do the same as those students.

"We have students who are challenged, we have a nurse here, and they (disabled students) are facilitated. I told her that he can return home on weekends, but she refused," continued Steer.

"But in an effort for him to really benefit from the school and its offerings he has to be here at a certain time. We don't want a situation where he is here one day and the other he is not because she cannot afford it," continued the principal.

The Sunday Observer first met Grant last August as she pushed her son's wheelchair through the crowds at the popular anual LIME Back-to-School Fair in Portmore, St Catherine. Their sombre expressions were in sharp contrast with the hundreds of gleeful patrons capitalising on the fair's offerings. Grant was seeking assistance with his back-to-school expenses from random strangers in an act of deperation.

That meeting occurred seven months after then prime minister, Andrew Holness, who also served as minister of education, announced the Child Find Initiative as a feature of the much-publicised Education Transformation programme. Holness, in an address in Ocho Rios, St Ann, said the programme was intended to help disabled students.

"It will help to identify students with undiagnosed and undetected special needs who are in a general setting, screen and assess them formally and determine their categorisation and appropriate placement," he said.

But Clayton Hall explained last week that the Child Find Initiative does not cater to students in Jevan's age group.

"The Child Find speaks to original registration that this year would be for students moving into grade two; the original roll-out would have started with the grade one students for last year. It would not cater to students moving out of grade six," explained Hall, before addressing Jevan's case.

"Our facilities do not cater to that kind of situation, we do not have the capacity to cater to someone who is wheelchair-bound, he would not be able to get to the classrooms," he repeated for the Observer, noting that he recognised that the boy had been placed at his institution by the MOE.

Hall said that the source of the problem lies in the GSAT applications.

There is nowhere on the application form for parents to state that their students are disabled, he posited. Therefore, such students are treated the same as their able-bodied peers, and placed according to geography. He regarded this oversight as a problem demanding urgent attention from the education ministry.

Hall promised to contact Jevan's mother, the MOE, and principals of other high schools in Spanish Town to expedite his placement. But that also won't begin till later this week.

On Friday, Gloria Goffe, president of the Combined Disabilities Foundation of Jamaica, described it as tragic that mentally capable students like Jevan are turned away from schools because the institutions cannot facilitate them.

"It is unfortunate in this day and age that we still have issues of persons with physical disabilities who have worked hard like any other students and have been able to achieve the pass mark to secure the placement, but because of the inaccessibility of schools they are not able to enter," she said. "It should be a priority of the Ministry of Education that they ensure, with the school where the child is placed and the parents of that child, that they find a space for him," she said.

Goffe confirmed that the JUTC indeed offers a bus service for disabled persons. She explained that all the bus routes within the Corporate Area and Spanish Town culminate at the Half-Way-Tree Transportation Centre, and the disabled are transferred to other buses. In this case, she said, Jevan would have to take two buses from Central Village to Mona each day.

She said that sometimes the buses are on time while at other times they are not, resulting in students getting to school late.

Education Minister Ronald Thwaites on Friday said he had no prior knowledge of Jevan's case and questioned Hall's decision not to allow him entry to Spanish Town High.

"It is very unfortunate that a school declines to take a disabled person. Even if the facilities are not absolutely appropriate, efforts must be made to accommodate persons in such situations," said Thwaites, noting that Jevan would be better suited to attending a school within St Catherine.

He played down the absence of a place on GSAT application forms for parents to specify whether their children are disabled, offering: "Whether or not a student is disabled it is important that the school makes some arrangements to take him, and if the ministry can facilitate in some way then we will try and do so. So I am not sure if I accept that reason."

Thwaites urged the teen's mother to make arrangements to speak with him at his offices as soon as possible.

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