“Since the late 1990s, more persons with disabilities have been able to attend ‘mainstream’ primary schools, enroll at university and they are getting employment but there remain limitations to entering buildings; ramps are often too narrow if they exist at all, training may not be available in their communities and even participation in social life may be restricted due to lack of transport or physical access to the liming spot.”
Beckles was speaking with Newsday yesterday, during a break on day one of the April 23 to 24 conference, “Towards Social Integration: Rights, Roles and Recognition of Persons with Disabilities” at the Learning Resource Centre (LRC), University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine. The conference is co-hosted by the Network and Outreach for Disability Education and Sensitisation (NODES) and The Disability Studies Unit, UWI.
Beckles noted most of the gains made by persons with disabilities in Trinidad and Tobago have been achieved through their own efforts and those of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who advocate on their behalf.
Rather than wait on Government to make further improvements towards inclusion, Beckles said persons with disabilities must continue to keep their issues “on the front burner” and seek to partner with public and private sector agencies to achieve their objectives.
“There is a National Policy on Persons with Disabilities from the Ministry of the People and Social Development. (Unveiled) in 1993, it was only approved in 2005. We must keep bringing it to the forefront every year, develop partnerships in terms of delivery, until we see things implemented.”
“A lot of the people we talk to have no idea of the challenges faced by persons with disabilities,” Beckles added, “so those of us who have the knowledge and experience, we need to be sharing that and working with the Government and private sector.”
Co-founder and Chair of NODES, Dr Jean Antoine-Dunne told Newsday about the importance of advocacy groups speaking with one voice in order to effect change.
“There are so many groups in TT but what they needed was a conduit, a vehicle, to bring them together, so I created NODES. One of the main objectives of this conference is to bring these groups together to talk, so that they advocate with one voice and to help them realise the force that they have if they work together,” Antoine-Dunne said.
Referring to the misconceptions many people have about the abilities of persons with disabilities, the NODES chair said her daughter Eileen Dunne; a disability activist in her native Ireland and as a person with Down Syndrome, was the one who taught Antoine-Dunne how to use Excel.
“Jean also does all of my word processing for me. People don’t realise how much she can actually do. Eileen was one of the reasons why a lot of the integration happened in Ireland because my husband, Shamus Dunne and John Patrick ‘Pat’ Clarke; the CEO of Down Syndrome Ireland, actually fought the Irish government to ensure that persons with Down Syndrome could have support in school,” Antoine-Dunne said.
Delivering the keynote address at the first roundtable discussion yesterday, Eileen Dunne said “the attitude to Down Syndrome (in Ireland) has come on a lot in the past 35 years but it still has a way to go. We are no longer charity cases.”
“We are people with special needs,” Dunne added, “and it is up to meetings like this one to point out how to meet those needs and how to help us fulfill our potential in life. We are people with rights. We have the right to be accepted into the community and to have a voice in the community. We (also) have the right to have a job that is real.”