Out in the cold - Mainstream schools reject mildly disabled children

BY NADINE WILSON Sunday Observer saff reporter wilsonn@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, September 02, 2012

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HUNDREDS of students with developmental disabilities will be left out in the cold this academic year because mainstream schools don't want them.

In fact, some have been booted out of normal schools by their principals, although local experts have said that some of these students — despite their mild developmental challenges — are fully capable of functioning in the regular school system.

It is a real concern for local specialist and executive director of the Jamaica Association on Intellectual Disabilities (JAID) Christine Rodriguez.

"Unfortunately, there are schools that kick the children out and say 'you are not supposed to be in this school, this is not the school for you'. Those children go home and end up sitting down for a couple of months, for a year, for two years, because maybe the place to which they refer the child might have a waiting list for testing, might have a waiting list for placement, and so that child is being left out in the cold for an extended period of time," she told the Jamaica Observer last week.

Rodriguez estimates that about 3,500 Jamaican students aged six to 20 are moderately to profoundly intellectually disabled. However, a far greater number are mildly challenged.

Intellectual disability, also known as mental retardation, is a term used when there are limits to a person's ability to learn at an expected level and function in daily life, according the United States Centers for Disease Control.

Children with intellectual disabilities might have a hard time letting others know their wants and needs, and taking care of themselves. They learn and develop more slowly than other children of the same age. It could take longer for a child with an intellectual disability to learn to speak, walk, dress, or eat without help, and they could have trouble learning in school.

Until 2009, JAID was known as the Jamaican Association on Mental Retardation; founded in 1956 by the same man who started what used to be known as the Jamaica School of Hope. That school is now the Randolph Lopez School of Hope (RLSOH); the largest and oldest school for children with intellectual disabilities in Jamaica and the English-speaking Caribbean. The provision of services for children with intellectual disabilities was pioneered by Randolph Lopez, who founded the Jamaican Association for Mentally Handicapped Children in 1955. The school caters primarily to those who have a profound developmental challenge combined with a severe physical limitation.

JAID currently operates five similar schools which have a combined total of 29 satellite centres in every parish except for Trelawny. The schools, combined, currently have close to 1,600 students enrolled, with the majority attending the RLSOH in Kingston, and the Windsor School of Special Education in Spanish Town, St Catherine.

The school has already enrolled 150 students for this academic school year and is hoping that it will still manage to squeeze in at least a few others from its extended waiting list. That waiting list has 600 students, all seeking admittance to its special-needs institutions.

JAID caters to students up to age 20, but even so, those leaving far outweigh those being enrolled each year.

"We are always in everybody's bad books. Everybody feels that we are just being difficult and not wanting to take children, but that's not the case; we always have a longer list than we can provide for," Rodriguez said.

Still, she sympathises with the principals of traditional schools, who, she believes, refuse special-needs children because of the pressure on their institution to prove high academic performance.

"If you are a principal and your success is being measured by what you do with your children, the temptation will always be there for you to focus on the bright ones, because those are the ones who have the most gains to show in a shorter period of time," she said.

However, she cautioned, these already vulnerable children are the ones who suffer.

"What provisions are we making for those in society that have, through no fault of theirs, serious behavioural problems, serious learning issues? What provisions are we making for those children?" she asked.

Educational psychologist at JAID, Paulette Levers, said the school is often mistakenly perceived as a treatment centre where children with mental problems can go for two or three years to prepare themselves for the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), or the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) exams. This perception, she said, is not only held by parents, but also educators who see the school as providing a quick fix.

"They are of the belief that if the child is not coping in the regular schools, then as long as there is an academic problem that can be linked to a cognitive problem, they believe that this is the school for them," she said.

"As long as they begin to experience a challenge in school and they are underperforming, especially if they are underperforming for two grades or more, most people don't begin to investigate what might be the real problem; they begin to say this child is for School of Hope," she added.

Principal for the RLSOH, Sylvestina Reid, said she has also found that a number of the mildly intellectually disabled students seeking placement at her school have been turned out by principals of mainstream schools.

"This is right across the board; you find them from the prep schools, the private schools and the government schools. Those schools can't bother to plan appropriately for these children, so they just ask the parents to take them out," she said.

But JAID's social worker, Deborah Manning, feels some of these principals turn away the students out of frustration.

"Sometimes it is just out of sheer desperation. They really recognise that the child is just not suited for here, but nowhere else will take them, because there are no institutions out there that are in place to deal with the special needs of these children," she said.

She said that parents of these children are oftentimes just as frustrated with their condition and unfortunately abuse them as a result. Some parents, she said, hold unrealistic goals for their offspring which never materialise.

"Sometimes when you speak to some of these parents, their goals for their children are so unrealistic, compared to the school's understanding of this child and what the child is likely to achieve," she said.

JAID's focus is providing educational, vocational and adaptive skills training for students. As a result of the skills training received, a small number of these students have been able to secure employment in agriculture and horticulture, food preparation, art and craft, and woodwork. However, some parents, it seems, are still not satisfied with the progress their children make.

"What has happened to us is that we have a society that is always looking for the perfect child. The media highlighted those children who got 12,13, 15, 16 subjects recently. To do that, you have to be very bright, you have to have a lot of support, you have to work really hard. The reality is that we don't live in a perfect world," said Rodriguez.

It is believed that some of the issues being faced by intellectually disabled children, especially as it relates to their placement in schools, could be better addressed with the implementation of the much talked-about Special Education Policy.

But up to Friday when the Sunday Observer checked the Ministry of Education (MOH) website, there was a notice saying that the policy is still being reviewed.

When contacted, June Hamilton, assistant chief education officer in the special education unit at MOH, confirmed that the policy was still being vetted. She said she was unable to give a timeline when it would be implemented.

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