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Getting an education was never an easy thing for Akini Gill. At every stage he met with obstacles, mostly in the form of teachers who said he would never succeed and it was useless for him to have any academic aspirations. Early in his school life, some teachers thought Gill was retarded, because they did not understand his disabilities. His mother, Ann St Clair, was told not to bother to send him to school and to put him to work on George Street instead. Gill and his mother also struggled with poverty, so he never had easy access to the support systems and programmes he needed at school.
Gill’s first negative learning experience was at the Escallier Anglican Primary School, where teachers complained that he was too slow and could not understand the school work. He was seen at a child guidance clinic, where he was wrongly diagnosed as having language retardation. At one point his mother was advised to get him into Goodwill Industries. He was transferred to Western Boys’ RC but continued to struggle there with little support or encouragement. The turnaround began in 1997 when Gill’s mother, determined that her son should not be denied a proper education, asked for help from the Dyslexia Association. He was ten years old. It was then that Akini was properly diagnosed as having two conditions which severely hampered his ability to learn: dyspraxia and dyslexia.
Gill began to benefit from remedial work. He got help with educational planning and was given the necessary accommodations when he sat exams. He was enrolled at Eshe’s Learning Centre, a school which caters for children with learning disabilities, where he made remarkable progress and successfully sat an exam to get into Belmont Boys’ Secondary. It was from then on that Gill began to demonstrate his remarkable intelligence and musical talents. After secondary school he went to the Creative Arts Centre at the University of the West Indies, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in musical arts. Gill began teaching music and pan at the Trinity All Generations School (TAGS) based at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-of-Spain, as well as at St Margaret’s Boys’ and Chaguanas Government Primary. But that was not the end of his educational journey—or the challenges. He encountered major obstacles in 2011 when he tried to get a scholarship to New York University.
After being initially approved for a national scholarship, Gill was subsequently told the decision had been rescinded because the programme through which he applied was open only for studies at local institutions. He got an e-mail telling him an “administrative error” had been made by the Ministry of Public Administration in approving his application for a scholarship to study in New York. Once the error was discovered, he was told, a different course had to be taken to protect the integrity of the ministry’s scholarship programmes. Never one to give up a fight, Gill appealed to government authorities to reconsider and his story was picked up by local newspapers. His plight got national attention and eventually Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar intervened and he got his scholarship.
At NYU, Gill studied for a master of arts in music education, with the tenor pan as his major instrument. Recalling his experience he said: “I got more encouragement from NYU...and it helped me to grow. They took the opportunity to learn from me and I learned from them.” His thesis topic, Teaching Music to Children with Learning Disabilities in T&T, was later described as one of the best thesis oral presentations ever done at NYU. Dr John V Gilbert, director of music education at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, wrote: “His defence of the thesis was noted as outstanding, having achieved high merit in the written document and in his effective oral presentation and defence.” He said Gill had distinguished himself at NYU as a diligent student and accomplished musician and performer. “His special training background and love for his country will make him a dedicated professional who can have lasting impact on his students and his colleagues.”
Back home, Gill has set his sights on a career as a special music educator, a position that does not currently exist in T&T’s education system. “Children with learning disabilities can learn. They can be educated like any typically developed child using adaptive teaching methods,” he explained. “However, they will not learn at the same pace—it will take time.” Gill said there is need for greater awareness of various learning disabilities and there must be appropriate lesson plans and classroom facilities, individualised education programmes and special instructional arrangements for children with such challenges. “Research shows it is beneficial to have special education programmes with special music educators and music therapists working together. Teachers need to be aware of these things,” he said. Armed with impressive educational qualifications, this young man, who was once written off as unteachable, now wants to be part of a positive transformation in T&T’s school system, helping to introduce best practices in a variety of educational setting. His dream is that, like him, other children should get a chance to reach their full potential.