Twelve-year-old John-Paul Cabral has big plans for his future. He hopes to pass for his first choice, St Anthony's College, when the results of the Secondary Entrance Examination (SEA), are released in July. He also wants to be a child psychologist so that he can help children lead better lives. John-Paul is a special-needs child. He suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)-a problem with inattentiveness, over-activity, impulsivity, or a combination. Doctors are not sure what causes it but ADHD affects about three to five per cent of school-aged children. It affects boys more than girls. Most children with ADHD also have at least one other developmental or behavioural problem-John-Paul is one of them. He also suffers from a rare disease called neurofibromatosis (NF1) -an inherited disorder in which nerve-tissue tumours (neurofibromas) form in the skin, bottom layer of skin (subcutaneous tissue), nerves from the brain (cranial nerves) and spinal cord (spinal root nerves).
John-Paul, who's described as an intelligent child, is a former student of Sujo's Private School in Woodbrook. While he's looking forward to attending a normal secondary school in September, his mother, Charmaine Cabral, is worried that he may not fit in.
She says John-Paul, who also has co-ordination problems, requires special attention to function at his best. "What does the secondary sector hold for him? Do I put him back in private school again? Where is the government helping with this?" she asked.
"If he passes for St Anthony's College, I have to ask the principal if his special needs will be met. What is there to facilitate him?"
The Government recently announced grand plans to build more special-education schools to cater exclusively for children with special needs. It also plans to integrate special students into the regular school system. Cabral believes those plans are empty promises. She says there has been no word on the special educators, therapists and specialists needed to staff these institutions. "There is no support, no help from the government sector. You can't just say things and don't deliver," she lamented.
"It's very frustrating, because it's not that he cannot learn. It's just that he cannot learn in the mainstream. He is very bright, but I'm afraid that they will they treat him like he's a lost cause, because he functions differently...It has nothing in place for these children to thrive. Cabral, a single mother, dug deep into her purse to ensure her son got the best primary-school education. His educational expenses, she says, were well over $4,000 a month. "I'm scraping by. Everything for him is expensive," she said.
"Even his medical bills have wiped out my savings. He has had five surgeries on his right leg so far. His last surgery cost $30,000."
Special educator Ruth Thomas teaches 111 students at the Servol Special School, East Dry River, Port-of-Spain. She has first-hand experience of dealing with children with special needs. Her pupils range in age from five to 24 and have been diagnosed with a myriad of diseases including autism, mental illnesses, attention-deficit disorder and cerebral palsy. "These children are in dire need of help. Government should be more aware of what's happening," she said. "All we have been hearing are words."
Equal educational opportunities
Thomas says special-needs teachers have long been calling on the education ministry to do a better job to provide their students with equal educational opportunities. She says while she welcomes government's move to integrate the students into public secondary schools, there need to be systems in place to ensure they get the attention and care they require. "The majority of teachers have not been trained to handle these children. They do not even know the theory, much less real-life experiences," she explained. Thomas believes that, "realistically, some children might be able to go to normal schools, and some just can't." She says parents must also take greater responsibility when it comes to training and developing their special-needs child. Some parents, she says, allow their children to "do whatever they want." She added: "Intervention is not taking place early enough. When some people recognise the child has special needs, they keep them at home and say the child can't learn.
Something as simple as manners they don't have. We have to try to retrain that child who is already seasoned in their ways. It makes our job as a facilitator more difficult. "I have also found that a lot of fathers turn their backs on these children, and so the mothers are their only support. Some mothers just cannot cope." Servol principal Margaret Adams-Roberts concurs. Roberts, 60, has been dealing with special-needs children for the past 41 years. The mother of an adopted hearing-impaired girl, who is now married with three children of her own, she says parents need to love their children in spite of their challenges. She says many of her students come from broken homes. Some parents, she notes, are ashamed of their children because they do not see them as normal. "They remain in denial. Parents need to accept their children. Those who are accepted, you see a great difference with them. Take them out. Do things with them. Make them feel worthy," she advised.
"Parents must do better. The government must do better."
Minister: We will deliver
Education Minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh assures that government will deliver. He says his ministry is working to provide better for special-needs children, who he says comprise 30 per cent of students in the school system. Five special-education schools, including one in Tobago, are being designed. Gopeesingh says 22 schools (12 government and ten private) currently cater to 2,500 special-needs children, "but we need to do more." He says government will also implement the "inclusion" model of education, as international studies show it helps to boost the self-esteem and socialising skills of special-needs students.
Under the inclusion model, students with special needs spend most or all of their time in classrooms with children without disabilities. "For too long, special-needs children were ignored. I'm holding discussions with professionals in the field to understand what is needed to go forward and for us to be able to detect early on those students with special needs," he said, in an overseas interview, on Tuesday.