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Kenneth Suratt, 45, from Marabella, is an outspoken activist for the well-being and welfare of the blind and visually impaired. Suratt, blind since the age of 14, is the chief executive officer (CEO) of the T&T Blind Welfare Association (TTBWA). Before becoming the CEO at the TTBWA, he was involved for many years at the association as handicraft worker, music teacher, welfare officer, instructor, supervisor and acting manager. He has taught the use of computers to the blind and visually impaired and is an authorised songwriter at Cott (Copyright Organisation of T&T). In 1994 he received the National Youth Award for special education and leadership.
His mission as a social entrepreneur is to continue to be an agent of change for the community of the blind and visually impaired. In his words, “I lead the blind instead of following the sighted.”
The TTBWA celebrates 100 years of existence this year, and the milestone has already been celebrated with the association hosting Jewels of the Evening 2, a two-concert series which featured talent from the blind and visually impaired community. This was the second year for the concert series under the patronage of the President’s wife, Reema Carmona. The theme of the centenary celebrations is Empowerment and Inclusion of Blind Persons in Society. The TTBWA was formed back in 1910 due to the pioneering efforts of blind Guyanese immigrant James Alves after much hard work and advocating for the blind community (at the time some 533 blind people were registered). The history of the TTBWA will be commemorated in a publication marking its centenary milestone.
Tell us a bit about your early years.
I was born on Lagandeaux Estate in Guayaguayare. Even though I was a low-vision child, my mother especially insisted that I get an education and enrolled me in the St Thomas RC School in Mayaro. At age eight, the teacher realised that I could not see on the blackboard from where I was seated and suggested to my mother that I should have my eyes examine by an ophthalmologist. She took me to the San Fernando General Hospital, and the doctors informed her that my sight would not improve and suggested that I should be enrolled at the School for Blind Children in Santa Cruz.
I performed well as a student there and was selected to attend QRC as part of the integration programme, where blind children were mainstreamed into the regular school system. My eyesight allowed me to use regular printed books but I had to bring it very close to my face to read the printed text. I did not develop the skill of reading brail with my fingers. Instead, I used my little bit of eyesight to do so. This became a problem when I lost my sight completely at age 14. After returning from eye surgery in Miami and England, I found it difficult to cope immediately with reading brail with my fingers and as a result of that, I did not return to QRC. I continued my education at the School for Blind Children and developed my coping skills to understand my blindness.
What is the most prevalent misconception about blind people or those who are visually impaired?
Most people believe that they have to speak loudly to people who are blind. When this happens I quietly say, “I am blind, not deaf.” Not in a way to belittle the individual but to educate them on how to interact with people who are blind.
If someone only reads a couple lines of this interview what would you want them to know?
That blind people are created in the image and likeness of God, we just do things differently.
How do you communicate, what communication tools do you use in today’s technological world?
To access my computer I use software that converts the text on the screen to synthesised speech. This technology is called text–to-speech (TTS) software. Since Apple started building TTS in their products, a lot of other companies followed them because they realised that blind people also have money to spend, too! I have an Apple iPhone where I could have access to my contacts, send text messages on BBM, WhatsApp, make free calls with magicJack and Viber, and navigate my surrounding with Waze and BlindSquare, read the news locally, regionally and internationally. My computer at the office has a software on it called Jaws (Job access with speech). I could scan printed letters and it is converted to text by the system called optical character recognition (OCR). I can read and send messages, and before my secretary comes to work, I will e-mail her things to be done from either home, on the road from my phone or from my desktop computer. We are working with all major banks to install the necessary TTS software at their ATMs so that people who are blind could access their finances when the banks are closed.
What is the biggest need/priority of the TTBWA and how can people help?
We need more money so that we could purchase the required aids so that blind people could be equipped to function in a sighted world. Also, parents need to encourage their children to learn how to give service by volunteering from an early age for the TTWBA. The ongoing training and retraining of our employees so that they could improve the quality of service we offer to people who are blind. Working together with other disability organisations to implement a national building code to accommodate the disabled community is also up there on our list.
Tell us about your inspiration to do the type of “work” you do.
I am not driven by money or by selfish desires, but to structure an organisation to deliver quality service and opportunities for all people who are blind. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats. If the TTBWA becomes stronger, then all people who are blind or visually impaired will be better for it and be able to contribute to the building of our nation.
What are some of the challenges you face and how do you deal with them?
My biggest challenge is overcoming my fear of blindness. Today, I am still trying to deal with my condition and consider myself as a student of blindness. Living in a sighted-dominated world as a blind person may have setbacks, but it also gives me an opportunity to become a symbol of hope for those who are yet to travel this road as a blind person. Every time I achieve something it brings me closer and closer in overcoming this fear. When people who are sighted reach out to me and do not focus on my blindness but on my ability, it helps to make life as a person who is blind enjoyable.
What would you consider your dream or ideal achievement?
My dream is to repay my mortgage and other loans by age 55. Make my home, my most prized possession, as comfortable as possible so I could have my special place for relaxation and comfort. All my life, I either lived on an estate or by my grandmother. It feels great to own your own home and I intend to make it my castle, fit for a king.
At which schools/educational institutions did you receive your education?
St Thomas RC, Mayaro; QRC; School for the Blind, Santa Cruz; Hadley School for the Blind, Illinois, USA; other institutions for computer literacy and other courses; currently enrolled at Costaatt pursuing the BSC in human resource management.
What are your hobbies and interests?
Listening to music, playing the guitar and keyboard, swimming, meeting people and writing songs.
What do you consider as your greatest achievement?
My biggest achievement is securing a permanent home for the southern branch of the TTBWA. The southern branch of the association was housed in an old rum bond on St Andrew’s Street, San Fernando, with limited space and unsanitary conditions.
Of all your prizes and awards which do you rate as extremely special?
Composing for Asha Kamachee, the blind chutney singer. When she was crowned the Tuco chutney monarch with one of my compositions, I felt proud that we broke the bogey that stood in her way of winning a crown.
What advice would you give to the young people of T&T?
Know what you want and ensure it wants you. Get advice from the professional on how to achieve it. Formulate a plan. Keep monitoring your plan to ensure you are on target to attain your goal.
What goals and/or ambitions do you still have?
My main goal is to close the gap between the blind and sighted and, as Martin Luther King wished, for all of us to walk hand in hand as brothers and sisters, as children of God in an ever-changing world where buildings, cities, and the natural environment could be made accessible for people who are disabled to enjoy the beautiful things this land has to offer its citizens.
Anything else about you that you’d like our readers to know?
I could still enjoy a cold drink and light conversation with friends and family, go swimming at Maracas, and have a shark and bake. Will never get fed up of doubles. I think it is our national pastime.
If you had an opportunity to meet anyone in the world, who would it be?
I would love to meet Brian Lara. The reason is that whenever people criticised him, he did not respond in words but with the bat. In that way, he silenced the critics, leaving them with their mouths open…I admired that.
Who was your hero growing up, outside of your family?
Deonarine Ragoo stands out as my hero. Even though he had a little, he gained a lot. With very little education he became a successful businessman and the first blind person to contest and win a local government election. If I ever had any doubts that sighted people would not support a blind person, the result of that election changed my mind. Once you have something good, the world will beat a path to your doorstep. He is also a successful parent and was able to give his children an education he never had. He always said, “This race to improve the lives of people who are blind is not for the swiftest but for those who have endurance.”
What daily motto/credo do you live by…your recipe for success?
Focus on the work and the fruits will come.
Upcoming events and contact info...
Documentary video on the history of the TTBWA by GISL, school reunion for people who attended the School for Blind Children, walkathon and health fair in Tobago to highlight the services the TTBWA has been providing for the past 100 years, bingo and domino tournaments, boat cruise to raise funds to provide canes for people who are blind, charity dinner, national award ceremony to honour people, both blind and sighted, who contributed to work for the blind.
I can be contacted via Facebook and e-mail, [email protected].
Describe yourself basically in two words, one beginning with K, the other with S—your initials.
Keen on success.