By Lindsey Turnbull
A handful of candidates for the upcoming election attended a presentation by Inclusion Cayman last week and heard that children with special needs were being denied an inclusive education, i.e. one which brought them into mainstream classrooms to be taught alongside their peers, regardless of ability.
Laura Young, the mother of a special needs child, detailed the likely prevalence of disability among the Cayman community and said that it was estimated that approximately 6,000 people living in the Cayman Islands had a disability of some kind. In 2020 there were 10,749 students enrolled in the Cayman Islands and it was estimated that at least 1,600 of those students had special education needs.
The Sen (Special Education Needs) Code of Practice, introduced in 2016, calls for all public schools in the Cayman Islands to offer an inclusive education for those with special needs, but private schools are not included in this. This caused obvious distress for one mother of a special needs child in attendance at the Inclusion Cayman presentation.
Mother of a daughter and son, Chelsea Flynn, said her young son had been diagnosed with special needs and that becoming involved with Inclusion Cayman had helped her realise that children with special needs had the right to an inclusive education and that they did not have to be forced into segregated schools.
“This was my lightbulb moment,” she confirmed. “It gave me hope and put words to what I knew was right and what I had wanted.”
As a mother, she said she simply wanted the same access to education for her son that her daughter had, i.e. the right to go to a mainstream school and have an inclusive education. It was a very important goal for her, as would be the case for any parent, to enroll her son in the same school as his sister. But the school she had chosen said that while they said they were an inclusive school, admitting him would depend basically on how disabled her son was.
“He was three years old at the time and basically was being denied access to education because of his label,” she stated.
Ms Flynn said she had to eventually send her child to a preschool for children with disabilities, not what she wanted for her son.
“Inclusion is just a buzz word, it’s not a reality,” she said. “In order to make inclusion a reality here in the Cayman Islands, we need all children to be welcomed in all mainstream schools, both public and private. We are asking that the Government needs to define the law so that all students have access to inclusive education.”
She went on to say that there were years of research which clearly demonstrated that inclusion was better for all children, and questioned why Cayman still segregated children with disabilities.
Ms Flynn called for the Government to extend the SEN code of practice to all schools, not just the public schools.
“In order for the Cayman Islands to be a better community, we need to ensure that all children feel like they belong,” she said.
Ms Young, backed up Ms Flynn and said that there was overwhelming research that said children who received inclusive education did better than those in a segregated environment. Ms Young reached out to the candidates in the audience by saying she looked to them for support in addressing the issues as they related to inclusive education.
As well as extending the SEN Code of Practice to all private schools, Inclusion Cayman is also calling for the decentralisation of resources and sharing them with multiple environments, equating to roughly $6,000 per child versus the $35,000 currently spent per child at the islands’ only dedicated school for children with disabilities, the Lighthouse School. They also called for a definition of the law whereby all students should have access to an inclusive education.
The audience also heard that help for special needs children needed to be extended into adulthood to ensure that they received the assistance they needed in order to live a productive life after they left school.
Inclusion Cayman calls for a specially dedicated supportive services department that could assist with independent living, vocational support, citizens advice, legal and financial advice, supporting all citizens, not just those with disabilities. Funding was also needed to organisations within the community, such as Inclusion Cayman, which supported the vision of an all-inclusive life, which supported employment of adults with disabilities.