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Special needs policy, says official


SPECIAL needs advocate Melisa Porter has made an impassioned plea to policymakers to make the special education needs policy a priority in order to better serve children with such needs in the education system.

In an interview with the Jamaica Observer Porter made the call in support of Autism Awareness Month and said it’s full time the special education needs policy moves through Cabinet in order to provide a set guideline for teachers and schools.

“We signed The Convention on the Rights of the People with Disabilities. We were the first signatory, we were the first as a country and then we dragged our feet in terms of passing the Disabilities Act. We finally got that passed in 2014. Now we have special needs policy to guide the education sector so we don’t have so many gaps and children left behind, and we are still dragging our feet. It’s something that has been called upon several times, but then the attention, the value system placed on special education and supporting the children that are so inclined is very low,” Porter said.

Porter, who is also the head of the Cynthia Shako Early Childhood Education and Daycare Centre at the University of Technology, Jamaica, added that Jamaicans enjoy signing up for things and profess to be inclusive, but when it comes to the action items they are usually found lacking.

“The policy was in draft form since 2006 and it was finally documented in 2017 and subsequently referred to Cabinet, where it currently sits. To date, many things have been passed and been looked at, but nothing as it relates to passing or even publishing and putting that policy forward to direct teachers, to direct schools. The Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report explicitly states that whatever countries value as important they will place emphasis on, so it cannot be that you have a draft policy since 2006, before Cabinet since 2017, and so many things have passed to date and this has not been given adequate attention,” Porter told the Sunday Observer.

Porter said having the policy would provide a framework that points Jamaica in the direction of suitable practices, instead of cherry-picking international standards which are not culturally and contextually appropriate.

In relation to how the policy would make a difference, Porter said things like infrastructural development and the need for specialist teachers would be streamlined.

“The physical environment in terms of catering for children with special needs is also lacking, the most recent report done by the GEM showed that only 24 per cent of schools have ramps and only 11 per cent have accessible bathrooms – some basic things. If we don’t get the basic things right, we are not going to get the other things right,” Porter said.

Further, Porter said Jamaica has made strides in terms of looking at a special needs curriculum and having regional special needs coordinators, but maintained that a lot of groundwork is still required to not lose an entire generation of students.

“When you look at funding, the budget for education has increased, which is great. However, when you look at the budget, how it is separated and allocated you realise that there is a massive disparity in terms of funding for special needs. Well over $90 billion went to education for the 2017/2018 period and only about $1.1 billion was allocated to special needs. Special needs requires a lot of resources. When you think about shadows, when you think about the assistive technology, when you think about lack of teacher training – all of those resources required to pump into that system – the allocation is very low,” Porter said.

Porter added that the argument might be that special needs children might not contribute as much because they are lower functioning, but charged that as an assumption and discrimination.

“You find that the focus is given to the typical child or children because we expect they are going to produce more and contribute more to nation-building or to human capital, but that’s not necessarily the case, and that’s discrimination in and of itself. It’s the lack of emphasis, you cannot have a policy sitting so long and give us no word, to date, on it. It just makes no sense,” Porter said.

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