Unearthing hidden treasures in the special needs community

Sunday, July 08, 2018

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WHEN a teacher and a parent noticed that Usain Bolt has scoliosis, and Michael Phelps' mom discovered he had a learning disability, each set of caregivers decided to work with these children and saw a bright future. History shows that these two Olympians overcame their respective challenges to become global stars and add to their countries' economic growth.

Yet, every day in some Jamaican classrooms, children with disabilities are shunned. How many bushels have been kept under a light and the potential to contribute to the national economy overlooked?

Antonica Gunter-Gayle, director of the Early Stimulation Programme (ESP), who for more than 28 years has fought for acceptance of children with special needs, shares Andrew's story.

“Andrew came in third out of 40 in his school, and Andrew has a disability — which initially the school refused to accept. Several of the teachers said that if such a child were in their school and they saw him every day, if they were to become pregnant their child would end up with the same disability. By the time Andrew sat GSAT (Grade Six Achievement Test), these same teachers were so proud of him and said they wished the other students had the same level of determination.”

While not on the success scale of Bolt, to Gunter-Gayle Andrew is a clear example of what happens when the community stands up for a child's ability.

“There is potential in every child with special needs to contribute positively to society, but this can only be unearthed through the opportunities given to them,” she says.

Gunter-Gayle continues: “We have to start with our attitude: we need a change in attitude to a positive attitude towards children with a disability. How we see them makes a difference and how we feel about them makes a difference.

“Standing up for them in terms of equality and inclusion, because they have rights — and that is to education, playgrounds, our communities, our churches, society, just like everyone else. Our children with special needs don't have to end up being dependent on society if that opportunity is given to them. They can be contributors to society and therefore the onus is on all of us, private or public sector, community members and family members, to see them as children first rather than seeing their disabling conditions,” she said.

In this regard, the ESP team is currently working with Therapy Missions — a group from the United States that came to Jamaica to volunteer for a five-year project — to improve the therapy-intervention skills of the teachers and community intervention counsellors at the ESP.

Gunter Gayle notes, “We are particularly excited by the Therapy Missions team who are currently with us to help us better serve our children with special needs. Specifically, they will give us support in the form of speech therapy, occupational therapy, special education, and physical therapy.”

In terms of what is to come from the Therapy Missions partnership, Gunter Gayle explains: “We are expecting that over the five-year period of our partnership [that] not just the Early Stimulation Programme will benefit, but other persons who interact with us will also be equipped with a certain level of expertise and know-how in terms of intervention for working with children with special needs.

“We expect our families and caregivers will also be empowered and take on their role as effective parents. We expect community members will be sensitised on how to treat children with special needs and Jamaica will be way better off, and this partnership will reposition us as a nation in terms of how we treat with our children and persons with disabilities.” she said.

Gunter-Gayle says, too, that, “The Ministry of Labour and Digicel Foundation have come on board, and a number of others that have come on board so that we have a collaborative effort for children with special needs who will become adults tomorrow as people with special needs.”

In the meantime Erica Pincomb, spokesperson for Therapy Missions, shares the mission's motivation for coming to Jamaica.

“We started 11 years ago, based on the need for more support for parents and caregivers of kids with special needs in developing countries. We partner with organisations around the world to provide teaching and training through in-person teaching, online training, and caregiver and staff support and parent support. Our goal is empowerment for parents, teachers and caregivers,” Pincomb says.

One of the things Pincomb notes is that, sometimes with special needs people point out the disability and forget the ability.

“And so, Therapy Missions is abilities-focused rather than deficit-focused.”

For parents and caregivers who want to do more for their children, Pincomb and her team share the following tips:

1. Learn how to communicate and connect. It can be more than words-consider body language, eye movements and such.

2. Challenge them to be independent in their daily needs. We may, out of love, do a lot for them that they should learn to do for themselves.

3. Give them the experience that typical children get, such as everyday things including going to the supermarket and church. Don't hide them.

4. Parents, give yourself grace and keep trying.

5. Celebrate strengths that all children have and celebrate every success, no matter how small.

Additionally, the Therapy Mission team offered activities that parents can do at home to improve their child's output in several areas:

1. Literacy: Get books and read aloud to your child or make up stories and talk with them.

2. Occupational therapy: Encourage the child to participate in whatever you are doing, such as dressing and cooking, and encourage them to move about and not sit for long periods of time.

3. Emotional therapy: We expect children to be happy all the time and that is not realistic as they will have good days and bad days, and that is okay. Also, children with special needs require structure, guidelines and consistency — it is not that they don't know better yet, they need behaviour management. Don't feel bad because they have a disability. If you accept bad behaviour, that is what takes away their power. By being sorry for them you are enabling learned helplessness. Our overall goal is to make the child as independent as possible.

4. Speech therapy: Talk to your child, even if they cannot talk back to you. Give them experiences and tell them what is going on. If you are at the market, tell them what is going on. Show them pictures of family members, say something and wait. Look for the response from the hands, the eyes — it is important for kids to express themselves in other ways.

— Dennise Williams

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