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Hidden Disabilities

Published: 
Tuesday, May 22, 2018

“Every gang leader I have spoken to had a learning disability”
Archbishop Rev Jason Gordon.
Newspaper article,
Friday 18 May 2018

There has been no formal study done on the incidence of hidden disabilities among gang members. The Archbishop’s comment, made at the opening of the Catholic Religious Education Institute’s (CREDI) “Hidden Disabilities Conference-What You Cannot See”, last Wednesday, is thought to be accurate by most of us who work in the field and very probably indicative of a serious problem: the inability and failure of the educational system to harness the potential of children with disabilities, hidden or not.

The good priest knows because by his own public admission, he is dyslexic and that is a hidden disability. He is in quite good company: Leonardo da Vinci; Albert Einstein; Mohammed Ali; Steve Jobs; Ingvar Kamprad (Founder of Ikea); Richard Branson; Harry Belafonte; Bill Gates, to mention a few of the great ones.

What do they all have in common? First, they don’t see things exactly like us. They think differently. They think “outside the box” and they are the ones responsible for much of the progress humankind makes and they have to fight to make their way in the world.

In T&T, and much of the world, especially the developing one, children with hidden disabilities are failed in the school system and so make it outside, on their own, in diverse capacities.

Unfortunately, far too many are lost to society and end up in prison or in Lapeyrouse.

A disability is defined as “any restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being”. Another way of looking at it is to consider the way society interfaces with it, i.e. that a “disability does not inhabit a person but resides within society”. It is the way that society responds to the person with a disability that determines whether a person is disabled or not and the response of society is poor.

About 15% of our school-aged population have a hidden disability of some sort that affects their schoolwork. That’s around 50,000 children. A child with a hidden disability looks and generally behaves like any other child but with occasional unusual behaviour, e.g. difficulty paying attention in class; difficulty following complex orders; lack of energy; unexplained weight loss etc. Something is wrong. But it is invisible, hidden.

Some of these hidden disabilities are physical, e.g. vision or hearing problems which together account for about a third of hidden disabilities. Because children are so amazingly adaptable to a visual or hearing problem, all children should be tested for hearing at birth and at entry to school and as early as possible for vision which, in T&T, means at school entry.

There are other hidden medical disabilities, diseases like “sinus” and asthma that keep children up at night and cause them to be sleepy in school (you can’t be alert in school unless you sleep well). Certain types of epilepsy cause school failure as do anaemias and thyroid problems but these are rare. Really, the vast bulk of hidden disabilities are the psycho-social ones like dyslexia and other learning disabilities; ADHD; autism and the socio-emotional disturbances related to abuse and to poverty.

Many of these children fail school, are termed delinquent and end up in prison. A 2005 British study of children with anti-social behaviour found that 35% had a mental health disorder or a learning difficulty. In 2005 the UK Dyslexic Institute, in a sample of 357 prisoners in Yorkshire, determined that 20% were dyslexic. An Israeli study in 2006 discovered that one in three prisoners had a learning disability and half were ADHD. A US study found that 13% of inmates in one prison system had significant hearing loss, i.e. deaf

We do not know what is happening in our prisons, of course. We know what’s happening in the schools. It’s not good.

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