Social inclusion is more than a buzzword. It is, and has to be, an action-oriented concept. The expression refers to embracing, in an proactive way, citizens who are regularly excluded from the everyday activities of life. It has to be deliberate, and ongoing.
Last week, the Inter-American Development Bank came out in support of inclusion, signing a technical co-operation agreement with the Jamaican Association on Intellectual Disabilities (JAID). Funding will come from the Japanese Government’s Japan Special Fund Poverty Reduction Programme. Therese Turner-Jones, who is IDB’s Country Representative for Jamaica and General Manager for the Caribbean Country Group, this is “breaking new ground” for Jamaica; but in fact social inclusion has been a core mission for the IDB for the past sixty years.
The three-year initiative is titled “Innovative Approaches to the Development of Children With Intellectual Disability.” It aims to provide therapeutic approaches and importantly to support Government policies and to provide data, tools and techniques that will help them fulfill their promise and potential.
We should take serious note that there are approximately 4,000 children with intellectual disabilities for every 1,000 in Jamaica – that is, 14 children for every 1,000. This seems remarkably high. According to an IDB report from last year (you can read the full report here), 13 percent of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean have some form of disability. This is quite a chunk of the population, isn’t it? According to the UN Development Programme/World Health Organization, eighty percent – yes, eighty – of people living with disabilities are in the developing world. This is quite sobering. The World Bank estimates that 20 percent of the world’s poorest people have some kind of disability, and tend to be regarded in their own communities as the most disadvantaged.
In other words, as the UN puts it, people with disabilities “are the world’s largest minority.” Let’s think about that.
We used to have all sorts of disparaging names for people with intellectual disabilities – “mentally retarded” being just one of them, and there are worse. According to the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, an individual has an intellectual disability if he or she meets three criteria: IQ is below 70-75; significant limitations in two or more adaptive areas (skills that are needed to live, work, and play in the community, such as communication or self-care); the condition manifests itself before the age of 18.
Apart from the need to protect our most vulnerable citizens, leaving them out of the mainstream and pretending they don’t exist (or are an inconvenience) has major implications for the development of nations. Jamaicans with disabilities have their own contribution to make to the economy, if they are only given the chance. We truly need to break down those barriers so they can actively participate in society.
The poverty factor is also real. So many parents (especially those in rural areas) really struggle with the costs of health care and educational support (if available) for their children with special needs. I have not even mentioned yet the stigma and discrimination. It must be stressful, and heart-breaking for the families, trying to balance and fill their children’s needs, and wishing they could do so much more. Parents need not only training to help them help their children, but also support. So the goal is to provide “parent support coaches” through JAID.
At the signing ceremony, IDB Executive Director for Japan Mr. Toshiyuki Yasui pointed out that Japan has been an IDB member for 44 years, to the tune of some US$400 million. Demographics are changing rapidly, he noted – including Japan’s own aging population – creating an even greater need for inclusion. In fact, in the region, the prevalence rate of people with disabilities over 60 years old is upwards of 40 percent in some countries, according to the IDB’s 2019 report. It is harder to measure among the under-18s.
Here in Jamaica, Mr. Yasui noted that volunteers from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have been working with people with disabilities through art and craft. The Chupse Studio creates lovely jewelry from coffee beans!
“Neuroplasticity”! What a great word, which I think we all understood by the end of the signing ceremony. I have seen it described in terms of that concept: “Your brain is a muscle; if you don’t use it, it stops working” – in other words, it’s how the brain develops. If we develop neuroplasticity, we will be stimulating the brain. A team of specialists are designing modules (including an important nutritional component) for this initiative, said Marilyn McKoy, Executive Director of JAID.
Minister of State in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security Zavia Mayne thanked the IDB for its support for the Government’s Early Stimulation Programme. Then he had some very important news to give us. The Disabilities Act of 2014 has been dragging its feet in Parliament for yes – going on six years now. Or rather, parliamentarians have been dragging their feet – despite persistent advocacy from Opposition Senator Floyd Morris. Minister Mayne assured us that the Act will become a reality “in this calendar year.” He informed us that instructions have been given to the drafters of the legislation for the regulations and codes of practice for the legislation, “which we hope will give it some teeth.” Cheers! We look forward to hearing more.
The Randolph Lopez School of Hope in Kingston, established in 1956, was named after its founder, the parent of a child with intellectual disabilities. The Schools of Hope have had an interesting history, starting in Kingston, extending across the island and restructuring from time to time. Nevertheless, a lack of awareness and empathy in the communities where the students live remains a concern. A group of students performed at the signing ceremony – a well-coordinated drumming piece, which they enjoyed playing as much as we in the audience enjoyed listening.
I love Helen Keller sayings. The amazing deaf-blind advocate and teacher never truly felt sorry for herself. She looked outward. A tremendous optimist, she once said:
The welfare of each is bound up in the welfare of all.
In a sense, this is what social inclusion is all about. Including each person means that everyone benefits.