The story of T&T’s visually impaired: A testimony to possibility of social inclusion of the differently-abled.
Last month on December 3rd we celebrated the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. On that occasion, the United Nations (UN) pledged to leave no one behind and stated that its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development represents a commitment to reducing inequality and promoting the social, economic and political inclusion of all, including people with disabilities. This would mean implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in all contexts and in all countries. It also means integrating the voices and concerns of people with disabilities into national agendas and policies. This month of January, January 4th to be exact, marked the birth date of the French educator Louis Braille who invented a system of reading and writing for use by the blind or visually impaired. His system remains virtually unchanged to this day, and is known worldwide simply as braille. This day is now designated World Braille Day. It celebrates the tool of braille that stands testimony to the possibilities of reducing inequity and promoting inclusion of the visually impaired, a subgroup of the differently-abled community.
There is a level of independence that can be achieved in many cases of disabilities, especially with the use of braille as a tool for the visually impaired. However, there are many barriers that that such differently-abled individuals face which hinders them from realizing that goal. Some people’s attitude and physical and economic barriers make life difficult for the visually impaired. This hinges on the social determinant of health that concerns social inclusion. Due to discrimination, the visually impaired may be excluded from things like attending school or being involved in regular social activity at the workplace, school or within the community. In many instances, attending school, a mandatory requirement for most and a human right to education, is often denied to the visually impaired. Without access to education, they would not be able to find a job, and, without a job, he or she will always be dependent on others. This is not only a waste of their skills, but also a violation of his or her right to proper education. This problem of exclusion is also encountered even if the visually impaired gets a place in school or lands a job.
In Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), the T&T Blind Welfare Association (TTBWA) is the official body charged with making facilities available for visual impaired. It founder was James Alves in 1914 and it was made an official body by Act #14 of the Parliament of the British colony of T&T in 1947. Currently the TTBWA provides adjustment coaching and counseling for those who have recently become visually impaired, wide canes for such individuals, as well as orientation and occupational therapy for the visually impaired and those living with them. It also provides courses in learning braille, computer skills and handicraft for the visually impaired, important skills in fostering and promoting independence. Mr. Kenneth Suratt, an executive official of the TTBWA, spoke very proudly about the initiative of the TTBWA to make a braille copy of any reading material so that the visually impaired can avail themselves of the knowledge of the books’ content. He said that, with the availability of this service provided by the TTBWA, those who are deemed ‘just blind’, i.e. those whose only disability is being visually impaired, can be included into the school system and potentially achieve the same as, or even better than their non-visually impaired counterparts. He cited the example of three successful students in the south land who, in 2018, had written the Caribbean Examination Council’s secondary school exams achieving high grades and going on into the world of work. He stated that this was indeed achieving the UN’s mandate of inclusion of the differently-abled into society and a long stride in achieving independence in their lives.
Mr. Suratt then went on to cite some challenges for the TTBWA’s initiatives. He stated that many school principals and teachers are still uncomfortable with including the visually impaired in their schools. They claim that students with this disability would be high risk and they would not want to be liable if any mishaps were to occur due to their disability. However, Mr. Suratt blamed their ambivalence on a lack of policy and political will to start programs of sensitization of these teachers to the visually impaired as well as within the wider community. Through raising awareness and education of those living or interacting on a daily basis with the visually impaired and the and the wider public, everyone in society can help those who are visually impaired to live their lives to the fullest. Thus, the visually impaired can gain back their rights. Such awareness would be most effective in existing education programs. That way, the community will come to understand the nature of the disability with which the visually impaired live. Local support groups for parents of and those living with the visually impaired are absolutely necessary as it helps these individuals to share their experience with others.
Mr. Suratt pointed out that, at least in modern day elevators in T&T, manufacture standards are kept where braille is mandatory in the buttons of operation. Also, in the many modern hotels and office buildings there are braille signs and facilities available. These reduce the barrier of being blind so that the visually impaired can live almost normal lives when carrying out their activities of daily living. From an occupational stand point, this also makes the lives of the visually impaired much easier. These facilities are absolutely necessary for the visually impaired to live independent and fulfilling lives. However, Mr. Suratt also mentioned other challenges that exists in this regard. He stated that the national building codes of T&T have not been updated to facilitate an easier and independent life for the visually impaired. He also added that, for those parts of the codes that have included international recommendations for the visually impaired, the issue is a lack of implementation that has hindered such manifestations in many of the modern buildings in T&T. However, he says that the TTBWA is committed to the cause of advocating for such issues to be on the political agenda as well as ensuring that they are placed as priority among other competing issues on this agenda.
Dr. Prithiviraj Bahadursingh, a consultant pediatrician at the South West Regional Health Authority, runs the pediatric development clinic at that institution. Many of his patients are those with just a visual impairment or other associated disabilities. He says that there are special schools available in the public and private sectors to handle children with such disability and much strides have been made in this regard. However, he sees the problem as the places in these institutions and also the number of intuitions are not sufficient for the total number of children afflicted with these ability. However, he did highlight a very effective screening program by the Ministry of Health to pick up visual problems at primary schools so that they can be addressed early to prevent permanent visual loss. He stated however, that there would be a percentage of children who are picked up, but would unfortunately suffer some level of permanent visual loss. He says that priority should be given to these for placement into special schools if indicated, but again it is very doubtful if there would be sufficient spaces for the incidence and prevalence of being visually impaired.
Taking into consideration the high incidence and prevalence of chronic diseases non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like Diabetes Mellitus and Hypertension and their complications of visual impairment, one can imagine the morbidity burden where partial and complete blindness are concerned. There must be a long-term plan of prevention so that the incidence of developing the disease and its complication are reduced, as well as proper care of those with the disease to prevent this complications. But, in the short-term, there must be a plan to facilitate a life close to normalcy for those who develop the complication of visual impairment. This would require much stakeholder collaboration where the visual impaired is concerned.
In the end, with fewer barriers, a proper education and awareness in the community, the visually impaired has the same chance as others getting a job and being independent. Instead of depending on others, in this way they can be fully appreciated for who they are: people of many abilities. But at a personal level, in schools and the workplace, we can all do our part to educate ourselves to be better able to support those in our communities who are visually impaired. If we are not used to dealing with those with this disability, we may find ourselves in an awkward situation when we come across someone who is visually impaired. We may not know how best to help them and we might cause offence without meaning to do so. A lot of the time, we worry unnecessarily. It is perfectly alright to say, “I don’t see why’, to a visually impaired person. But there are some common mistakes that non-visually impaired people make when dealing with the visually impaired. Here are the top three disability etiquette mistakes that we commit often without even realizing it:
• Taking a visual impaired person’s arm. Most people actually prefer to take your arm, not the other way around. So do not grab a person to guide them. Instead offer your arm if they need it and be sure to warn them of any obstacles.
• Talking to guide dogs before their owners. We all love dogs, but it rude to speak to and fuss over a guide dog before addressing its owner. So always talk with the person, not the dog.
• Assuming you know how to help. We may not always be the best judge of how to help someone who is visually impaired. So, if in doubt, just ask.
Submitted by: Dr Visham Bhimull