Moving (Swiftly) Towards an Inclusive Society

December 15th, 2014

We need to get there – and fast.

That was the message from CEO of the Digicel Foundation Samantha Chantrelle last week. Ms. Chantrelle, who herself has an autistic son, has a vision of Jamaica as a truly inclusive society.”  In the past few weeks I have heard this line from the National Anthem on several different occasions: “Teach us true respect for all.” And it resonated, too, at the Digicel Foundation’s Tenth Anniversary Forum on Special Needs under the theme: “Towards Disability Inclusion.” The term “social cohesion” comes to mind. Or as Bob Marley would have put it, so simply: “One Love.” 

Digicel Foundation chair Jean Lowrie-Chin chats with Senator Floyd Morris at the Foundation's 10th Anniversary Special Needs Forum. (Photo: Digicel)

Digicel Foundation chair Jean Lowrie-Chin chats with Senator Floyd Morris at the Foundation’s 10th Anniversary Special Needs Forum. (Photo: Digicel)

Now, a “forum” may sound like just another “talk shop.” (This is the third this year focusing on each of Digicel’s key areas of Education, Community Development and Special Needs). But all the participants in this event were “doers,” people who make things happen. A perfect example was keynote speaker Senator Floyd Morris, who has in his own personal life made extraordinary progress as a blind person. His single-minded dedication to crafting legislation relating to the disabled is remarkable. He has certainly not just been talking.

Senator Morris – an imposing man with a ringing voice – stood up straight with his hands behind his back and spoke. I expected to see Braille notes, but there were none. I was duly impressed. Describing his journey towards the Disabilities Act of 2014 (which you can find in full on the Ministry of Justice website) Senator Morris gave us a sense of his childhood in rural Jamaica. As a student at St. Mary High School he became aware of his rapidly failing eyesight, due to glaucoma; he graduated in 1986 without a single subject to his name (because he simply could not see) and stayed home for four years, wondering what to do with himself. One day, he heard on radio about the Jamaica Society for the Blind, and determined to go to Kingston and make something of his life. He raised chickens to earn enough money to go to town, where he learned braille and continued his education. He decided to go into politics because he wanted to be a “voice inside Parliament, consistently speaking for this vulnerable community,” he says. And the rest is history, as they say.

The Senate President emphasized one word at regular intervals:“consistency.” Advocacy, he stressed, cannot blow hot and cold. It has to be steady and determined. He called partnerships with organizations such as Digicel Foundation (and the over thirty non-governmental organizations now working with people with disabilities) “collaborative advocacy.” Similarly, now that the Disabilities Act has been passed (it obtained Senate approval on October 10) the Senator says it will require “consistent public education” to make the legislation work for the community that it serves. Despite his efforts over the years, Senator Morris feels there is much more work to be done; the concerns he initially had about the plight of disabled Jamaicans in 2001 “are still relevant today,” he added. He wants the legislation to be properly enforced. Don’t park in disabled spaces. Don’t call disabled people names.

Senator Morris joined our group session for a while. (My photo)

Senator Morris joined our group session for a while. (My photo)

I sat down for a while with one of the working groups after the break; this was on “Education for all.” There were many concerns. A representative of the Nathan Ebanks Foundation pointed out that there is just one school bus on the island which caters for children with disabilities. Facilitator Ann Newman from the Ministry of Education updated us on the Government’s efforts, including an expansion of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security’s Early Stimulation Programme and reminding us of the Assessment Centres in Kingston, Portland, Montego Bay and Mandeville. “We need to catch children with disabilities earlier in the system,” all agreed. At present, disabilities are overlooked in over-crowded classrooms, often not correctly identified and sometimes mistaken for other issues. Trainee teachers need at least an introductory course in special education and this should be written into education policy, the group suggested.

These devoted mothers of autistic children outlined their challenges in the education working group. (My photo)

These devoted mothers of autistic children outlined their challenges in the education working group. (My photo)

Two mothers of autistic children outlined their challenges. One said she lost her job in 2010 because she had to devote too much time to child care. She has applied for Government assistance under the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) without success. Senator Morris told her what to do to pursue her case. It seems to me, though, that only private schools for the disabled are able to offer the support that is needed, despite the best efforts of the Government.

Senator Morris is a true advocate: Determined, hard-working, resilient and willing to go it alone if necessary – but always looking for partners to strengthen his cause. He is familiar with the strategies: Get more disabled people registered, he urged, because “politicians pay attention to numbers.” Work together, because “they will listen to you when you speak with a unified voice.” I sat next to Ms. Chantrelle’s predecessor Major General Robert Neish, who is passionate on the subject of Special Needs. Major General Neish now directs the Jamaica Paralympic Association and remains committed to the cause. Even in his retirement he continues to advocate.

Ms. Claudia Gordon is a Jamaican-born deaf woman and attorney. She was appointed Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement last year.

Ms. Claudia Gordon is a Jamaican-born deaf woman and attorney. She was appointed Public Engagement Advisor for the Disability Community in the Office of Public Engagement at the White House last year.

The Chair of Digicel Foundation Jean Lowrie-Chin told us an inspiring story. You may have heard it before, but it is well worth repeating. Claudia Gordon grew up in rural Jamaica. As a little girl, her neighbors called her “Dummy.” She had lost her hearing at the age of eight; and moved to the United States at around that age. She pursued her education, became the first black deaf woman to qualify as an attorney and served at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties before her appointment as an Advisor for the Disability Community at the White House.

Yes, people with disabilities are people. With talents. With potential. Just like you and I.

Let’s make sure we include them in our lives.


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3 Responses to “Moving (Swiftly) Towards an Inclusive Society”


    Great piece…

  2. […] My latest post on discusses the Digicel Foundation’s focus on special needs…and the need for “consistent advocacy” on the issue, as expressed by Senator Floyd Morris recently. Read here: […]

  3. EmmaLewis says:

    Thank you so much, Esteban!