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JIS News

A critical area of any country’s education system is the provision of special education for children with special needs.
In Jamaica’s case, this is being done through the Ministry of Education and Youth’s Special Education Unit.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), there are more than 37,000 Jamaican children who live with one or several forms of disabilities, including sight, hearing, speech, learning and physical, as well as mental retardation. The Special Education Unit was established in 1989 with a mandate to secure appropriate opportunities for students with special needs in the mainstream as well as in special schools.
“Special education is educational provision for students that deviate from the norm, meaning it is not just those with physical, mental or learning disabilities, but you also take in the gifted,” June Hamilton, Acting Assistant Chief Education Officer in the Special Education Unit tells JIS News.
“We have the tendency to believe that students that need special intervention are just those with extreme problems and we tend to leave out those who are gifted, but those who are gifted fall under the other end of the continuum and they too need intervention,” she adds.
The Special Education Unit performs several functions to ensure that children with special needs get the proper education they deserve.
“The aim is for supervision and intervention if the students are identified. We would want those students to be assessed and to be appropriately placed and for programmes to be developed that are relevant to their needs,” says Miss Hamilton.
Other functions include, securing teaching or learning opportunities for students with special needs throughout the education system; plan, implement, and monitor special education programmes; and secure access, equity and quality education for students with special needs.
Currently, the Ministry of Education and Youth is in the process of creating a policy on Special Education, which aims to protect the rights of children with special needs.
Miss Hamilton says the policy, which is in its draft stage, is paying particular attention to the needs of students at the early childhood, primary and secondary levels. In addition, focus is being placed on issues of assessment and accommodation for these children.
“We are looking at what is required at the Early Childhood level, the Primary and Secondary level, also assessment and accommodation. If students are not assessed, you cannot deal with them as we ought to, because without assessment you really don’t know what you are working with,” she points out.
“We have some students in the system, those students need accommodation.accommodation might be in terms of time, it might be in terms of a reader writer, and it could be the format that the material is given in. You have some students who cannot stay on task, and so you will have somebody to guide them and keep them on task, so that they perform the duties or do the work that is required of them,” Miss Hamilton explains.
She points out that the Special Education Policy will also be focusing on the rights of the child.
“The policy is to be used to get persons to adhere to certain principles. We have principals presently in the system that are rejecting students because of their disability, so the policy is coming on stream to prevent that,” informs Miss Hamilton.
“This policy is coming on stream to get students to be assessed, so that we know exactly what is wrong and that they are properly placed. Because right now there are students in regular classrooms who are not performing, they are not assessed and sometimes they have behavioural problems.teachers just do not know what to do with them,” she adds.
She notes that the policy is not about the development of programmes, as currently, there are programmes in the schools that cater to children with special needs.
“We have technical programmes within some of the schools.in some schools we have some students doing horticulture, woodwork and welding, along with the regular subject offerings that you will have in other schools,” says Miss Hamilton.
“At the school for the blind, there is mobility, just to enable them to get around. The students mentally retarded or intellectually challenged, as it is now called, they do daily living skills, the skills that prepare them to function after school,” she adds.
Currently, the primary institution that provides assessment of students with disabilities is the Mico Care and Assessment Centre in Kingston. Miss Hamilton says the institution provides an essential service, because students need assessment before the corrective actions can be taken.
“Right now there are students in regular classrooms who are not performing.they are not assessed and sometimes they have behavioural problems and teachers just don’t know what to do with them,” she tells JIS News.
She notes that in the policy, special emphasis will be placed on the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“Some of the objectives of the policy are to promote the rights of children with special needs, equity and access, because there are children who are wheel chair bound, so we need physical access. We also need access in terms of location of schools, as it does not make sense if you have a group of physically challenged students in St. Elizabeth and the school is in Kingston; that is not access,” she informs.
In the meantime, Miss Hamilton says the Special Education Programmes are funded through the Government, which gives grants to independent agencies that are providing special education services. Along with these agencies, there are seven government units attached to various schools, which perform the same function.
“We have three schools for the deaf coming under the Jamaica Association for the Deaf and two satellites; and for the intellectually challenged, we have five main schools and a number of satellites across the island. There is just one school for the blind, and for the children with learning disabilities, they are in regular schools and the Jamaica Association for Children with Learning Disabilities offer some programmes for kids with learning disabilities,” informs Miss Hamilton.
The Special Education Policy has been sent to the relevant stakeholders for feedback. After this, it will be submitted to Cabinet and should be in place by early 2007.
Miss Hamilton says while the policy provides a framework regarding the care and protection of special needs children, it is the role of the society to make each child feel special. “Children with exceptionalities are members of this country as well as those who are up and running about. We have to cater to the needs of all children,” she emphasizes.