Barbados??? model for special needs education has endeared itself to at least one Caribbean country, to the extent that it may be emulated.
This was hinted at recently when a delegation of education officials from St. Lucia, led by Minister of Education, Dr. Robert Lewis, met with Minister of Education, Science, Technology and Innovation, Ronald Jones, and his team, at the Elsie Payne Complex, Constitution Road, St. Michael.
Staff from the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) also accompanied the delegates, who provided Mr. Jones with an update on their five-day study tour of special needs education facilities across the island.
The study tour was sponsored by the CDB and arranged by the Student Support Services of the Education Ministry. Its aim was to allow the delegation to observe the special education system in the basic education sub-sector, including teacher training, the curriculum development process and the operation of special education facilities in both the public and private sectors.
It included visits to The Edna Nicholls Centre, The Ann Hill School, The Derrick Smith School and Vocational Centre and Deighton Griffith Secondary School.
Impressed with the reception given by these institutions, St. Lucia???s Education Minister, Dr. Robert Lewis, commended the Government of Barbados and the CDB, noting their staff proved to be both knowledgeable and keen on facilitating the mission.
After charging his delegation to enlighten Minister Jones on their experiences, his Chief Education Officer, Marcus Edward, said: ???Having seen some of the things we have seen so far, it seems that you have already gotten over some of the hurdles??? We as a region need to be making better efforts at collaborating and consulting with each other and sparing each other some of the bumps and bruises.
“One of the things that has impressed me is [that] there is a sense of acceptance here of persons with special needs??? whether it is your use of sign language in the television news or the fact that every school we have gone to, we find that people in the mainstream are very willing to include and embrace and to make efforts in support of children with special needs.???
Following an inquiry as to how this had been achieved overtime and what was necessary for it to work in St. Lucia, Education Minister, Ronald Jones remarked that it had not always been easy. He stressed that it had been the result of the island being cognisant of what was occurring on the international scene and then undertaking some introspection.
???When you start seeing successes in what small things you do then they blossom???You have to start getting successes and highlighting those students in the media who are successful???,??? Mr. Jones said.
He acknowledged that President of the Senate, Kerryann Ifill, who is visually impaired, and who had accompanied the delegation to Deighton Griffith School, was among those successes. He added that others had followed in her footsteps, pursuing education straight through to the tertiary level.
The Minister explained that Barbados had moved away from keeping special needs children at home to having them either included in the school system or in distinct institutions relative to their own peculiar needs. He listed some of these institutions as the annexes at Charles F. Broome Memorial and All Saints Primary schools, the Learning Centre and the Derrick Smith School and Vocational Centre.
The St. Lucian delegation heard that the latter, a hybrid, was conceptualised by philanthropist, Derrick Smith, the Sandy Lane Trust and Tangle Woods Trust, and supported by Government. Deeming it ???an ideal model of public-private partnership??? that was likely to be sustainable, Mr. Jones told them that Government provided for the operating costs of this entity, as well as the Learning Centre in St. Thomas, to the tune of over $1.5 million yearly.
Acknowledging there were a variety of models and structures which St. Lucia could consider, he said: ???But it is what works, bearing in mind that the State has to be aware that if there is any faltering in resources, you are going to have to step up where there is private partnership support – you???re going to have to step up to fill the gap. But you work it as much as you possibly can as long as you possibly can. There is no fixed model.???
Stating that he was still not satisfied that enough was being done to reach the entire population, the Education Minister said the challenges extended beyond infrastructural needs to even helping special needs persons find employment. He lamented that some would never be accommodated in a work situation and as a result, the State would have to provide for their upkeep.
The delegation heard too that Barbados was about to launch a study with the assistance of the European Union to provide a broader perspective on areas such as training and equipment needed to be deployed across schools catering to special needs education.
While noting the need for more retrofitting to aid persons with wheelchairs, the Minister spoke of efforts by Government to design requisite facilities for the disabled, when new buildings, roads and pavements were being contemplated.
His regional counterpart was further assured that Barbados stood ready to collaborate and share ideas, and Mr. Jones concluded that all in the region should consider drafting legislation to facilitate special needs, whether at the level of the school or any social safety system that may exist along similar lines as Barbados??? Child Care Board.
Education Specialist and Portfolio Manager with the CDB, Dr. Idamay Denny, welcomed the Minister???s sentiments, and pointed out that the Bank was also working in other Borrowing Member Countries to inform the public about the educational needs and rights of those with disabilities. She added that in the development of capital projects, CDB was giving consideration to the provision of full access facilities.
The former education official also brought to the fore the need for advocacy at the level of CARICOM for persons with special needs, and noted that this was supported by the Bank???s mission, which spoke to assisting the poor and vulnerable.
???We will certainly be willing to give assistance to the development of a regional policy if the Ministers [of Education in CARICOM] determine that it is an area that they want us to focus on,??? Dr. Denny stated.??She acknowledged that CDB could facilitate a collaborative arrangement between St. Lucia and Barbados for special needs educators.