According to the UN Convention on the rights of the child, a fundamental right for ALL children regardless of their background is making education accessible to them. Educational instruction must also be of good quality as well as gratuitous so impoverished families can also benefit.
The Honourable Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar recently said during the Paramin R.C. Primary School Opening: "Education is the single most important element that secures our ability to continue and progress...We will not rest until every child in Trinidad and Tobago has the quality education they deserve."
How is this universal right being fulfilled with regards to children with autism? What is the government doing to ensure they fulfill this VERY important and VITAL responsibility?
You see, we do not live in a country where you can simply open a phone book and see a list of special needs schools and automatically know they have caring teachers with the right qualifications through a degree in special education and of course, the experience, to teach your autistic child. The reality is far worse… it is more like a trial and error experiment in a mad-scientist’s laboratory and your children are the guinea pigs - and to boot, you must pay for it.
It is so bad that you are forced to choose between the least of the evils and you even start unconsciously justifying the way they run their operations compared to other special needs schools you have visited.
“They are not sooo bad. At least they just slap the children and they do not beat them hard”.
“They are not sooo bad. Yes, teachers do not have the right qualifications but at least the Principal does”.
“They are not sooo bad. They charge $10,000TT a term. The other schools charge $16,000TT a term!”.
“They are not sooo bad. No school is perfect… at least my child gets some time away from home”.
And the list goes on.
For parents with children under the autism spectrum and let’s face it, parents of any other special needs children in general, finding a school that can properly cater for their needs in Trinidad and Tobago is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. They tend to say their teachers are qualified, but having a Bachelor’s degree does not make you qualified to teach special needs students. Being the Principal of a school and having the right qualifications while the teachers do not possess the same, does not qualify the school or the teachers. The people working with special needs students must possess a degree in special education or have a post-graduate certification in special education to be qualified.
In the US taking California as an example, someone who possesses a Bachelor’s degree in any subject area must enter an accredited teacher preparation program or credential program with an emphasis in special education to qualify as a special needs teacher. For a clear credential, educators must also complete an Approved Special Education Induction Program as well as meet other requirements. Source 3
Is it that we think because this is Trinidad and Tobago our children do not deserve qualified teachers? Is it because this is Trinidad and Tobago we must accept the mediocrity that wants to be imposed to us while we pay for these "Services"?
I hear there are no places in Trinidad where someone can study to become a special needs educator. The University of Trinidad and Tobago offers a Bachelor’s degree in education with one of the programs having the choice of specialization in special education Source 5. CREDI also offers a Bachelor’s degree In Special Education along with a workshop with current issues such as dyslexia, autism and physical handicaps Source 1.
In the University of the Southern Caribbean a person could obtain a Bachelor’s degree and then obtain a Master of Arts in Educational Psychology with emphasis in Special Education Source 8 .The options are out there. Do not allow others to convince you otherwise.
As a matter of fact, according to Davanand Sinanan, President of the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) there are teachers who graduate from the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) with Bachelor’s degrees in education (BEd) who specialize in children with special needs, but these teachers are absorbed into the regular school system and are not given the chance to work with children they are trained to help simply because the government has not created yet the post of "Special Needs Teacher". What are they waiting for to create that post? Source 8. There are hundreds of qualified special needs educators who are anxiously waiting to work with special needs students and they are not giving that opportunity. Source 4
Let's face it, a lot of these special needs schools are actually day-care services, mostly because the persons who are supposed to teach your children are untrained, they do not know exactly what to do so they sit with your child to build a puzzle, they sing a few songs during circle time and they color together like they do with your neuro-typical children. But when your child is perhaps in the lower functioning part of the spectrum, how do these untrained teachers handle the situation when they have a meltdown and they are screaming, kicking and biting?
When their sensory issues are all over the place, do they know exactly what to do? When intensive intervention is desperately needed, these schools just simply don’t cut it unless we think that leaving a non-verbal child sitting down for hours doing every day the same activities without challenging them because nobody believes that they can do more...or left unengaged or stimulated in any way is some sort of unknown-recent therapy that I am not aware of. Nope, a little song here and there and a slice of pizza with a chubby to keep them quiet does not count.
As we know, the spectrum is very wide that even though a lot of our children can perhaps function well in a mainstream school with the help of a qualified aide, getting THAT qualified aide in the first place with the help of the government it is like starring as Tom Cruise in one of those Mission Impossible movies.
Mind you, these aides are only for those children in the higher-functioning end of the spectrum, the rest cannot even make it to mainstream schools. But the government spends billions funding FREE education for neuro-typical children from Pre-school level up to University educational-level and yet the often forgotten children under the autism spectrum do not even have a public school they can attend. But the promises over the years and the meetings about special needs education certainly do not stop coming.
Is it an unreasonable request that the government fulfill its responsibility to take care of ALL their citizens? Is it an unreasonable request to expect that every special needs child in the country can have a qualified teacher and aide to help him/her reach their full potential? Is it an unreasonable request to expect the government to build the first public school for children under the autism spectrum? Who is going to stand for what is right instead of just giving up and do nothing, thinking that no change could ever come?
I do not believe ANY of these things are unreasonable requests. But let me tell you what the unreasonable requests are:
1. Expecting parents to pay unreasonable fees for unqualified educational centers or intervention programs because they know that parents have very few options IF any.
2. Expecting parents to send their children to mainstream schools without the help of a qualified aide and subject the child to higher level of stress and anxiety when they are unable to cope.
3. Expecting parents to choose between any of these places and turn a blind-eye to the many issues they have.
4. Expecting parents to send their children to unqualified therapists or in trainee therapists who pass themselves as qualified, taking full advantage of parents who might not be very familiar with the proper terms and qualifications. As an example, to become an ABA therapist and START the process of certification, a person must possess at least a Master’s Degree in behavior analysis or other natural science, education, human services, engineering, medicine or a field related to behavior analysis AND approved by the BACB (Behavioral Analyst Certification Board). Source 6 Also new changes have been in effect since January 1, 2015 Source 8
5. Expecting parents to pay to Non-Profit organizations (Oh the irony!) and charitable entities (Double irony!) for private/individual therapies for their children.
And last but not least: Expect parents to accept ALL of the above, to be grateful and stay quiet. *This* parent certainly will not. My advocacy for children under the autism spectrum has just begun.