During the 5th sitting of the House of Representatives session, on October 15th, 2019, the Minister of Education, Anthony Garcia, made a few disconcerting and misleading statements (once again) surrounding the topic of special needs particularly Autism. It seems like despite the distressing widespread plight of hundreds of autism parents and the larger special needs community, the Ministry of Education continues taking a position of conceitedness with this matter.
The Autism Parents Association of Trinidad & Tobago (APATT) feels compelled to publicly address some of these issues as well as correct the terminology employed by Mr. Garcia during his speech to address the topic of Autism.
Throughout his discourse, the Minister of Education used words to describe autistics in a way that degrades and insults. In fact, the descriptions can stand as examples of why special needs citizens are seen as second class in the country by those who should know better. However, first we need to evaluate his inaccurate assessment of how the special needs community is being catered for by his Ministry.
The Minister of Education stated the following about the Student Support Services Division (SSSD) at the Ministry of Education:
“I’ve heard certain people say that… this division is understaffed and they require more persons and so on and I’ve countered by saying I have absolutely no problem with the staffing of the Student Support Services Division and I repeat that today.“
It seems like the Minister of Education continues to take a defensive position and refuses to acknowledge the obvious lack of competence of his Ministry to address Special Education in our country. Mr. Garcia seems to be the only individual who believes that the staffing in the SSSD is adequate.
In an article from the Trinidad Guardian dated the 27 Sep, 2019 under the title of “Staffing of Student Support Services, A Concern” the National Parent Teacher’s Association (NPTA) as well as TTUTA both mentioned understaffing issues at this section of the Ministry with expressed concerns about the inadequacy of the staffing as well.
In fact, one of the first things we were told by employees at the SSSD, when we visited back in March 2019, was that they are understaffed. It will seem as though the Minister of Education is disconnected from what is happening within his own Ministry.
If they are not as the Minister insists to claim, then why do they have a waiting list of more than 300 students to access services? Why is it that parents cannot access student aides for their children? Why do they have to wait for years to receive a psycho-ed evaluation? If they are not understaffed, why does the Ministry have just two behavioral therapists to cater for the entire country?
It seems like truth, facts and reality surpasses the delusion that attempts to confuse the general population. The Minister continues,
“In the area of children with special needs, that is one initiative that we are pursuing with vigor. Because it is our intention, it is our mantra that every child must have an opportunity to access a quality education.”
We would like to know what exactly is the definition of “pursuing with vigor” according to the Minister since he stated in 2016 that “Special Education is now on the front burner”. It is now 2019 and autistic children continue being denied an Education because they have no schools that can cater for their needs. How is that pursuing with vigor? How is that being on the front burner? What exactly has the Ministry done of significance for the past 4 years to address this urgent matter?
The answer lies in the fact that our children are still at home and will continue being at home as long as the hubristic approach continues. There is a conscious refusal to listen to anyone else who dares to disagree that things are well and being taken care of with regards to Special Education in T&T. Even so, the Minister then proves that he is just providing lip service when he says,
“In November next month, we will be having a series of focused group consultations where we will be inviting all the stakeholders particularly those who have an interest in children who have disabilities or who have learning disabilities. And we will be happy and willing to hear the advice that they are prepared or will prepare to share with us and when that is done, we will go back on the drawing board and we will come up with plans and programmes that will assist.”
In November, they will now start to have meetings and consultations and go to the drawing board to “come up with plans and programmes”. Are we to understand by this statement that all the previous meetings and possible solutions shared by APATT and others in the Autism community over the course of many years were simply ignored?
How many more meetings, plans, drafts and consultations will the Ministry of Education continue to have through the years? When will they actually decide to act and tackle the urgent issues regarding special education that we have been talking about for years and that the Ministry has been made very aware of? Is this their definition of “pursuing with vigor”?
It is very alarming that after 4 years in charge of the educational needs of the nation, the Minister without discomposure feels that there is a need for more consultations and a need to go back to the drawing board. It is clear and not surprising why the state of Special Education is where it is today.
Now, the Minister of Education feeds us a figure when he says,
“A needs assessment exercise was completed during the last academic year and during that exercise, 238 students were identified, who needed assistance where Autism was concerned. And having identified those students, we will be moving ahead and providing the required assistance to them.”
We would like to know how this figure was reached and how many students were assessed. However, these numbers may only represent students who are already part of the system. The big elephant in the room is the one we have been talking about for years and the one the Ministry refuses to acknowledge and continues to ignore: What about the hundreds of special needs children who are not part of the system and who are at home because they are not able to access schools that can cater for their needs? What is being done to address the urgent needs of these children?
Now, here come the insults. To any who may be on the Autism Spectrum that might be reading the words of the Minister, we want you to know that you are not a disease, a virus or in some kind of toleration exercise.
The Minister of Education, continues…
“You know some of those students are afflicted with things like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders and Autism. Now, Autism is something that is sometimes easy to identify and sometimes it is most difficult to identify because along the spectrum of Autism there are those who suffer from Autism on a minor scale and there are those who suffer from Autism on a greater scale and we are going to pay special attention to those children who suffer from Autism and some of the resources that are now available or that will become available to us, we will be spending a lot of those resources so that we can provide assistance to those children.”
It is unfortunate and ironic that a Minister in charge of Education in this country would use this kind of archaic terminology to address children who are on the Autism Spectrum. Students are not “afflicted” with Autism neither they “suffer” from it. It is highly insulting to state such and a sincere apology should be given. If we want society to be accepting, those who are supposed to be leading this country should know better. Just imagine in 2019 where we are trying to push neuro-diversity the Minister of Education considers Autistics as afflicted and suffering from Autism.
Special Education is not on the front burner, it has never been. More consultations and meetings as they plan for next month can no longer deceive parents or society into believing that things are being done and plans are going to be implemented soon. We are just a few months away from 2020, this government has been in office since 2015 and our children continue being at home. Another day, another year without knowing what a school looks like, right here in T&T and yet special education is being “pursued with vigor.”
The main issue here is that the Ministry of Education refuses to implement any of the logical suggestions that the special needs community has brought forward choosing instead to paint a pretty picture of planning and being committed.
This fable needs to stop at some point; it is getting old, repetitive and tiresome. We will continue to address these issues publicly as long as fallacious statements continue to be given in an attempt to mislead the general public with regards to what it is being done to address the urgent needs of our special needs children.