Maria Borde

It seems that whenever Ministry of Education (MOE) officials address the topic of special needs they do so with an aim to blame the parents of special needs children and excuse their own lack of action because they are constantly in the phase of “looking at” plans to be implemented that never become reality.

Therefore, it was with keen interest we decided to take the liberty to write a few things that were said during the JSC (Joint Select Committee) on Human Rights, Equality and Diversity Enquiry on Special Education that took place last Friday (July 5), where MOE officials attended.

We watched the inquiry online, hoping for what perhaps can be described at this point as a miracle or in other words, concrete actions taken by the Ministry of Education to ensure that all children on the autism spectrum in T&T and those with other special needs can have access to free public education with qualified teachers.

There is an obdurate unwillingness to recognise the serious deficiencies (and not merely “gaps” according to the Chief Education Officer) about special education.

We were in a state of complete shock and disbelief when we heard certain things shared by government officials during this inquiry. Their perspective and administration of special education does not match in any way, shape or form the day-to-day, real life experiences of hundreds of special needs children and their parents living in this country.

It is both concerning and troublesome that our taxpayers’ money is going towards paying the salaries of those who are either very out of touch with the reality of special education, even though it is their job, or they are not performing their duties as they ought to. From our observation, ministry officials went to this meeting only to do what we refer to in colloquial terms as “save face”.

The following are some of the things that were brought to light:

1. The MOE does not possess official data on the number of children who are in need of special education. They are estimating their figures based on the teachers’ ability and willingness to report concerns on particular students to the Student Support Services Division (SSSD). These numbers are not in synch with the Central Statistical Office and they do not include children with special needs outside the school system.

2. The words “limited resources” and “staffing issues” were mentioned a few times during the inquiry, even though the Minister of Education, Anthony Garcia, stated clearly in the past that the SSSD is overstaffed by 500 employees. Which one is it?

3. When asked by the committee if the classroom-based interventions for those students who have not been referred to the SSSD are in line with the requirement of the National Policy for Persons with Disabilities (provision of adequate and appropriate professional support staff, assessment services and use of individualised educational plans for all students with disabilities) the MOE admitted that they are not in line.

4. When the MOE officials were asked for the number of persons trained and how many persons with disabilities have been recruited into the system by the ministry, the Chief Education Officer could not provide figures and stated he has not quantified the numbers of persons. He also stated the same for how many persons with disabilities have been recruited by the ministry.

5. When asked what is the average waiting period for a student to be assessed by the SSSD for learning or behavioural disorders, the co-ordinator for special education services in the Ministry of Education, Leticia Rodriguez Cupid, stated it varies between six months to a year depending on the referral process. In reality, parents report a waiting period of many years, with many others who have never accessed services through the SSSD.

These are just a few of the things said during the inquiry but perhaps one of the most disturbing statements came from the Chief Education Officer, Harrilal Seecharan, when he stated that the issue of persons being denied special concessions for the SEA exam is often-times due to some parents trying to seek to take advantage of the system by paying professionals to state their child has special needs.

This is a very disturbing claim against parents of special needs children in T&T. The Chief Education Officer is clearly stating that there are unscrupulous parents who are willing to pay thousands of dollars to corrupt professionals to lie on the report and state that their child has special needs in order for them to have a few more minutes to complete the SEA exam.

We challenge the Chief Education Officer to provide evidence of those claims immediately or cease making such outrageous remarks about our special needs parents. Our parents already go through the daily stressful challenges associated with the lack of resources available for their children that should be offered and provided by the ministry he represents.

We are not going to be made the scapegoats for the Ministry of Education’s lack of competence on addressing special education. Most importantly, we are not going to be subjected to any kind of innuendos.

We will not remain silent as disparaging statements like those continue to flow.