EDITOR, The Tribune.
Please allow the publishing of this open letter to the Minister of Education & Culture:
I write to you in two capacities – as a mental health professional/advocate and as a parent of a recently discovered special needs child who has a learning disability, visual-spatial disorder to be precise. Visual-spatial disability is a non-verbal learning disorder (NVLD). It is a processing deficit whereby a child struggles to organise and process visual information. It creates a challenge to appropriately conceptualise space and can present with a struggle with concepts in math and complex verbal instructions. They are not dumb. They have a learning disorder(LD). More accurately, they learn differently from a normal neurotypical child. As such, unless the traditional way of teaching is adapted to maximise his learning experience, he and other children suffering from similar disabilities will be left behind. And that is wrong. NVLD is much more common than what is reported according to experts in the field. Further, the prevalence of learning disability is estimated at 5% (that’s one in every 20 students) making it quite common.
The Bahamas is a signatory of the Conventions on Rights of Persons with Physical Disabilities (CRPD). As written in the document, Article 7 states that “Parties shall take all necessary measures to ensure the full enjoyment by children with disabilities of all human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with other children.”
Further, The Child Protection Act 2007 Section 8 states “(2) The Minister responsible for education shall take appropriate steps to ensure that children with disabilities are afforded equal opportunities to education.”
There is a policy/practice of the Bahamas government to provide subventions to private educational institutions to support those entities in teaching our children. My son recently enrolled into a private secondary institution. But he is struggling. Like most private secondary schools, the school that he attends does not have an individualised educational programme commonly known as an IEP. Programmes like IEP are proven interventions for children with LDs. Adapting such programmes in all schools allows for all children of various academic ability to strive and grow at their individual pace. This does not change the school’s curriculum, but expands the educational environment to be more inclusive which is the aspirations of CRPD and Human Rights. It does not mean added cost to education. It means investing in specialised teachers and developing programmes for children with special ways of learning. The solution is not to have separate schools, as that approach goes against the CRPD right of equality, and also the spirit of the Child Protection Act mandating “equal opportunities to education.” Further, as argued in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), although related to race, the essence of the argument holds firm: separation could never be equal.
If a private school is receiving government funds, and those funds are mostly derived from taxpayers, then those institutions are receiving taxpayers’ money. Receiving taxpayer’s money should mean that those institutions provide appropriate education for all taxpayers’ children. ALL. In other words, they should expand their programme to accommodate students with special needs. If they are not doing so, then they should not receive taxpayers’ money.
We are sacrificing too many children and excusing away the desire not to change and embrace a better way. Education is a fundamental right to all children. Subsidising private schools that do not embrace inclusion is unfair to all Bahamian children with any disability.
DR THOMAS SMITH
MRCPsych,DM, MBBS, BSc.
January 25, 2023.