Many can only see how they look on the outside – but those who truly love them, behold who they are within. The differently-abled—not exactly disabled—exist almost invisibly within a community which seems too busy to care. However, organizers of Disability Week 2013 in Belize had hoped that those around them would take a pause during these seven days to take notice – and even if by a minute gesture, help break down barriers and open the doors needed to realize a more inclusive society.
That is the essence of this year’s theme: “Break barriers, open doors; for an inclusive society for all.”
The alienation of the differently-abled was evidenced by the scant turnout at the Open Day held by Stella Maris School in Wednesday, December 4.
Seven schools from the immediate surroundings were invited. Only one showed up.
If BTL was giving something away, they would have been there, the organizer opined.
On Tuesday, Amandala interviewed Lynn Santos, Stella Maris’s PTA president; Nasreen Jex, PTA vice president; Verla Gordon, PTA volunteer; and Abdul Marin Nunez, who is counselor for the 127 children at the school.
One of the missions of these spokespersons is to help the community to become more understanding of the various kinds of disability a person can suffer – to build both empathy and respect for those whose lives are lived in virtual seclusion due to no fault of their own.
“The beautiful and tricky thing about disability is that anybody can become disabled at any time. Especially people with diabetes, the silent killer – they could fall into a stroke or a coma and become disabled. And then we can’t forget the elderly, who suffer from diseases like Alzheimer’s and other complications. So the idea is disability is for you, it is for me, it is for everybody, and we need to prepare and give the love that we would want when our time comes around to people who are in the situation,” Nunez said.
One organizer of Wednesday’s open day told Amandala that she was very disheartened that others did not find at least a half-hour to come out and support the children of Stella Maris. Not just did their elementary school peers not show up – neither did officials from the Ministry of Education, they said.
They told our newspaper that there was no representation from the Ministry of Education and the office of the Special Envoy for Women and Children (known for its work with kids with special needs) when Disability Week was opened on Sunday.
The concerned organizer, who wanted to remain unanimous, said that they had been appealing for support for quite some time, and it appears that Belizeans don’t have that mindset to end that stigma that they have against people with special needs. It is an upsetting realization, she said.
The differently-abled are part of the community as well and should be given the same respect, said the organizer.
The kind of social exclusion that these children with special needs suffer can be unbearable also for some parents. Shame is also a factor.
The school counselor said: “Too many people are keeping their children at home – ashamed. We got wind of a situation right now where a mother is so ashamed of her child, she would want to kill herself and her child. We have had to report this matter to human services, because it is a child with autism and autism is on the rise in Belize, especially in males.”
Joy Westby, Stella Maris principal, told us that indeed, there seems to be a rise in the incidences of autism, as she has seen more autistic children coming to the school. She wonders if possibly something in the food could be causing it.
Autism is defined as “a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts.”
However, Westby notes that autistic children seem to be very good at interactive learning and could make much use of Information Communications Technology. Regrettably, the school’s computer lab was pillaged by burglars and now, students have no outlet at school for learning ICT.
One of the calls they are making during Disability Week is for the community to help provide the resources that differently-abled children need to develop important life skills.
Rounding out this week’s events are a community parade on Thursday and the Special Olympics on Friday.
The Stella Maris team has also been doing the media rounds in the hope that drawing attention to the special needs of the differently-abled would bring the inclusion to them that they need to live fuller and more meaningful lives.
Jex noted that disability awareness is very limited. While some do attend mainstream public and private schools, some attend Stella Maris where the emphasis is on the differently abled. Jex noted that the school is not just for the deaf and the blind.
However, one issue these parents grapple with is the fact that for many students who pass through the system, there is no life after graduation.
Westby said that only a very small portion of those who leave end up being integrated in the workplace and the ideal is for Government to establish a policy that would see enterprises employ at least one person with special needs.
Jex said that they do have capabilities and when they do work – they work hard.
The PTA said that perhaps, if there is a vocational school it would give them a trade, maybe they could have something for themselves and not have to depend on others.
Nunez said that many differently-abled persons are known to be good woodcarvers and craft persons; Jex said that a lot of the children are very talented in various ways, such as cooking and sewing.
Next week we will tell you about the differently-abled boy who wants to be a chef!
The parents we spoke with all have differently abled children.
Lynn Santos introduced her child: “My son is Robert Kelly and he is blind.”
Jex said, “My son is Theodore Jex. He has Asperger Syndrome – a form of autism.”
Gordon said that her daughter, Ebony, became partially deaf after developing an ear infection.
We hope to tell you more about them in Part II of this story.
A poem of tribute by Abdulmajeed K. Nunez, Stella Maris Counselor
Wah Happen to We?
I asked a young lady one day what Stella Maris meant to she
For a little while she stared at me
Then she uttered intelligently
Sir, security and stability
With tears in her eyes and a smile on her face she said, softly
‘’They accept me with my disability.’’
Society on the other hand judges me
Stella Maris embraces me
During Special Olympics and Disability Week they celebrate me
Although my parents love me
They are afraid for me
At times they smother me
Laugh, taunt and treat me like pickney
My teachers appreciate, comfort and encourage me
To be the best that I can be
They sing me happy birthday during assembly
I am a citizen of this country
I demand to be treated equally
Despite limitations of the ministry
Our principal sings to me
Our reading teacher believes in me
Our PE teacher is as sweet as can be
They show us movies like Akeela and the Bee
We go on educational trip regularly
They even have a school bus fi we
The teachers from Stella Maris
Prepare me for Special Spelling B
We learn sign; you see, I can’t hear properly and have mild CP
When my mom has no money, at school I can drink tea
And every afternoon they cook fi we
I’m looking forward to our annual Christmas party
We raise and care for chickens
Under strict, strict supervision we cook in the kitchen
Ms. Elliot, Ms. Newport and Ms. Rose teach we fi sew and fi hem
Mr. Nunez, I no know what will happen
After Stella Maris, I no know weh I gwen
There is talk about inclusion
but I feel like it’s going to be intrusion
When we leave and have to go to another institution and confusion
Other schools no understand fi we condition
They are not equipped with teachers who studied special education
I no want stay home and become a couch potato
I want the same freedom like Danavan Reneau
The disc jockey from Love FM
Or Chef Andre from Radisson
I have it in me to be a success
My soul is free; I’m becoming a young lady
In years to come I want to marry
All I want is an opportunity
I no want no one to feel sorry for me
Stella Maris is my home away from
My biological family
Ms. Joy, Ms. Elliot, Ms. Pickney, Mr. Mackool, Ms. Foreman
Ms. Rose, Ms. Leslie, Ms. Forbes, Ms. Smith, Mr. Lino, Mrs. Dana
Treat me like their own pickney.
The parents from the PTA di deh wid we
Sir, weh wah happen to we?