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From jubilation to despair
All of his life Akini Gill, 25, has struggled to get an education. Early in his school life, he was incorrectly deemed to be retarded by some teachers who did not understand the nature of his disability. Someone even went so far as to tell his mother Ann St Clair not to bother to send him to school and to put him to work on George Street instead. To add to these challenges, Gill and his mother also struggled with poverty, so there was never easy access to the support systems and programmes that he needed from the time he entered school.
It is therefore a testament to his courage, ambition and determination that Gill—against the greatest odds—is a graduate of the Creative Arts Centre at the University of the West Indies with a Bachelor’s degree in Musical Arts. This is certainly a significant feat since Gill has two conditions which severely hamper his ability to learn—dyspraxia, a motor learning disability and dyslexia, a developmental reading disorder. (See sidebar) With virtually no support from the State, he made it successfully through the education system, earning his first degree with second class honours.
However, once again Gill is faced with a mammoth struggle as he seeks to further his studies at postgraduate level. His dream of pursing a Master of Arts in Music Education at New York University hangs in the balance because a national scholarship awarded to him under the Differently Abled Award has been withdrawn. In just a matter of days, Gill went from jubilation to despair. On September 13, he was officially notified by the Ministry of Public Administration that his application for a national scholarship had been successful. “My mother was told by the director of Scholarships, Ms Jacqui Johnson, that the Scholarship Selection Committee selected my name but it needed to go to Cabinet for approval.
“The director said my selection was unique and never took place in the history of Trinidad and Tobago,” said Gill, who also pointed out that it would also have been the first under the Differently Abled Award at postgraduate level. On September 14, Gill was given a tracking number and a scholar support officer was assigned to him. The following day, the scholar support officer asked him to get an official letter from New York University confirming that he had been accepted to begin his studies in January 2012.
However, on September 23, when Gill contacted the scholar support officer with the requested documents, she told him they had stopped processing all scholarships under the Differently Abled Award because Cabinet wanted to review them. On October 13, the ministry sent an e-mail to Gill informing him that the notification sent to him about being awarded a scholarship was an administrative error. Gill is at a loss to understand why he has become a victim of an “administrative error”, since initially he had been told that his request for the scholarship had been favourably received by the Scholarship Committee.
It was also understood that he was pursuing his degree abroad because it is not offered in Trinidad and Tobago and this country does not have the facilities to accommodate his disability for studies at postgraduate level. Several people have sought to intervene on Gill’s behalf but have had no success. Among them is Allyson Hamel-Smith, the educational psychologist who first diagnosed his disability and worked with him to develop the necessary coping mechanisms and learning skills to make it through the education system. Also standing in support of Gill are Jessel Murray, Head of the Department of Creative and Festival Arts at UWI and Olive Seaton, his English teacher.
Reasons given for withdrawal of scholarship
Various reasons have been given for the withdrawal of the scholarship:
• Gill’s GPA of 2.87 is too low to qualify.
• New York University only accepted him because he has a learning disability and they will receive a grant.
• The Scholarship Selection Committee had no right to recommend Gill for that kind of scholarship.
• Several Cabinet ministers do not support granting Gill the scholarship because they would have to make similar waivers for others in the future.
Gill, who now lives in Woodbrook, but grew up in the impoverished East Dry River community, has often suffered rejection in his quest for an education. He first attended the Escallier Anglican Primary School where teachers complained that he was too slow and could not reach and 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.
Gill’s mother got him transferred to Western Boys’ RC where he continued to struggle. Eventually, she sought assistance from the Dyslexia Association and in 1997, when he was ten years old, he was screened and began to benefit from remedial work. He was assessed by Hamel-Smith who assisted him with educational planning and ensured he got the necessary accommodations when he sat national exams. Gill was enrolled at Eshe’s Learning Centre, a school which caters for children with learning disabilities, where he began to make remarkable progress. He was able to successfully sit an exam to get into Belmont Boys’ Secondary.
Gill’s accomplishments over the years include teaching music and pan for the past eight years 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. He was also a final nominee in this year’s National Youth Awards. “I am calling on Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to intervene so that my scholarship is reinstated,” said Gill. “Time is running out. I need to apply for a student’s visa from the US Embassy since my course of studies starts on January 23.”
A person with dyspraxia has problems with movement and coordination. It is also known as “motor learning disability”. Somebody with dyspraxia finds it hard to carry out smooth and coordinated movements. Dyspraxia often comes with language problems, and sometimes a degree of difficulty with perception and thought. Dyspraxia does not affect a person’s intelligence, but it can cause learning difficulties, especially for children.
Dyspraxia is also known as Developmental Co-ordination Disorder (DCD), Perceptuo-Motor Dysfunction, and Motor Learning Difficulties. Developmental dyspraxia is an immaturity of the organisation of movement. The brain does not process information in a way that allows for a full transmission of neural messages. A person with dyspraxia finds it hard to plan what to do, and how to do it.
Developmental reading disorder, also called dyslexia, is a reading disability that occurs when the brain does not properly recognise and process certain symbols. Developmental reading disorder (DRD), or dyslexia, occurs when there is a problem in areas of the brain that help interpret language. It is not caused by vision problems. The disorder is a specific information processing problem that does not interfere with one’s ability to think or to understand complex ideas. Most people with DRD have normal intelligence, and many have above-average intelligence.
DRD may appear in combination with developmental writing disorder and developmental arithmetic disorder. All of these involve using symbols to convey information. These conditions may appear alone or in any combination. DRD often runs in families. A person with DRD may have trouble rhyming and separating sounds that make up spoken words. These abilities appear to be critical in the process of learning to read. A child’s initial reading skills are based on word recognition, which involves being able to separate out the sounds in words and match them with letters and groups of letters. Because people with DRD have difficulty connecting the sounds of language to the letters of words, they may have difficulty understanding sentences.
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