Last week I sat at my desk and read the story of Jaheim Sealy Warden and I was both incensed and saddened. The story left me emotional because of its similarities to my own, and how it stands as evidence of how we as a society have not progressed.
Jaheim is an 11-year-old who underwent cochlear implant surgery, a procedure that allows him to hear, a sense he did not previously have.
Despite the success of this life changing surgery, and while, according to his mother, evidence suggests he should be placed in a “normal school” because he is of normal intellectual capacity, the Ministry of Education is reportedly insisting he attends an institution for children with intellectual challenges.
The Ministry of Education’s position is both nonsensical and discriminatory, but is certainly not uncommon for it has defined the treatment meted out to many, including me.
As I have previously written about in this column, at birth I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Cerebral Palsy has affected my fine motor skills and thus the way in which I write and walk.
Academically, I progressed normally even outpacing many of my colleagues. Despite my strides however, some teachers and the entire system thought little of my prospects. This would become quite clear as the 11-plus exam approached.
On the eve of that exam, one teacher recommended that my parents enroll me in one of the vocational centers on the island for persons with intellectual challenges. This recommendation was endorsed by the Ministry of Education, setting off a series of meetings between the Ministry and my parents and other representatives who presented solid evidence that I was of no diminished intellectual capacity and should be allowed to take the secondary school entrance exam and complete my education in a mainstream classroom.
This process was long and costly — both emotionally and financially — and only came to an end when, in the midst of the Ministry sticking to its unfounded discriminatory position, my parents threatened legal action.
They dared to challenge the system because they believed I deserved the chance to achieve just like anyone else. However, the reality is that neither my parents nor anyone else’s for that matter should have to fight for something afforded to every other individual without question.
Situations like Jaheim’s are indicative of the fact that we still pay lip service to disability issues in this country, a decade and a half after my own experience. As someone who lived this experience I was not convinced then, and I am not now, that we do not know what ought to done.
But in case I am wrong, Jaheim and every other child with a disability should be placed in a classroom and the necessary accommodations made in order for them to excel. That is what a modern society, which signed on to the United Nations Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, would do.
I read Jaheim’s story and a part of me wishes my parents had pursued a more structural solution like they had threatened to. Situations like these cry out for a policy solution, so that the dreams and hopes of our young people with disabilities do not hang in the balance and are not up to whims and fancy of any particular official. To preclude someone a quality education because of a disability is nothing short of discrimination and is not allowable in any other context.
The legal precedent as it relates to HIV/AIDS and employment sheds some light on the direction we should be headed. The law dictates that to deny someone employment on the basis of their HIV status without evaluation of both the particulars of the job and of the advancement of disease in the particular individual is not only reprehensible but also illegal.
Let the same be applied in cases of disability. Let it be known, made clear and well practised, that while some people with disabilities may, under certain circumstances, be deemed unsuitable to be educated in a “normal school”, it does not justify the exclusion from the normal classroom of all persons living with disabilities, certainly not without a full and rigorous evaluation and the resulting evidence to suggest such.
Better will not be had until the authorities in this country commit to equality and to allowing each individual to reach their full potential. However, it is left to be seen whether that commitment will have to be forced by the hands of the law, since that appears the only way given that the dictates of morality are not often enough.
Whatever happens to get us to the point of justice in this scenario and others like it, it will take a fight. And so if I could offer any advice it would be this:
To the parents of this brave boy — All parents must protect and love their children, but that imperative multiplies when your child is forced to live in a system that is inequitable; that is prepared to limit him and who he can become. You will have to fight for him and teach him to fight for himself. Seeking the best for your son will take time, resources and tenacity, but he is worth the work.
There will be days on which you will feel like you are his only supporters in a country that is not prepared to recognize him as valuable. When those tough days come press on, there will be days when you look back on this time and marvel at the fact that together with Jaheim you persevered and with clarity of purpose made a way where many thought none could be made. Also be assured that the work you are doing is not just for him but also for others like him and to push a lagging society forward.
To Jaheim — know that you perfect just the way you are, and that it is our society that has some changing to do. I wish I could tell you that everyday will be easy, but it will not. On those tough days, when the weight of injustice gets to be too much, lean on those dearest to you. Confidence and bravery, which it clear you already have in abundance, will serve you well as you move forward. Know that your dreams are valid despite society’s unwillingness to make change. Through it all, be happy, be brave, be a boy!
We have so much farther to go to reach the point where each Barbadian has the ability to maximize their potential. To reach the point that when we talk about the education as a right we are not only talking about those who can see and walk and hear and compute, but each and every one of us.