Disability need not be an obstacle to success. I have had motor neuron disease for practically all. Yet it has not prevented me from having a prominent career in astrophysics and a happy family life.
– Professor Stephen W. Hawking
Accessibility. This is a concept that comes up constantly in disability advocacy, the media and policies. However, putting words into practice is often as many things are, easier said than done. Mauritius is no stranger to this concept. My research over the past month has made it clear that lack of accessibility remains a barrier to children and individuals with special needs. For example, transport is a limiting factor for the majority of families with children with special needs. Although there are provisions provided by the government it is a laborious process to obtain transport and/or compensation. The social model of disability appreciates lack of accessibility, negative attitudes and exclusion by society as the underlying factors responsible for the difficulties faced by a person with disability. Unfortunately, however, this model is often replaced by its medical counterpart, which seeks to identify the underlying medical cause of the impairment, and focuses on treating the impairment through the use of surgery, drugs or therapy. The issue with this model is that it often sees impairments as purely the problem of the child, suggesting that it is the child who needs to change and adapt to their environment. With a pure focus on the medical model, disability thus arises because society fails to include children fully irrespective of their differences.
Although I have observed countless examples of the lack of accessibility in this country, especially with respect to education, this past weekend has allowed me to better appreciate how one’s environment impacts an individual. I spent the weekend with my good friend Nawsheen and her family (they’ve become my adopted Mauritian family). They’ve truly treated me like family and I’m constantly overwhelmed by their kindness and graciousness. Nawsheen’s brother, Yaaseen who is 25 years old, was born with the congenital disease – spina bifida, which has caused him to have no mobility beyond his knees. Yaaseen has been in a wheelchair his whole life and listening to his personal story and observing the great support and love he receives from his family has given me time to reflect. Due to health complications (chronic pain in his back, which required him to be in a planar position for most of the day to relieve the pressure) and childhood bullying, Yaaseen did not attend primary school and stayed at home with his mother until he was 12 years old. He taught himself how to read and write through watching television programs and reading the newspaper and said that books became his friends, in his isolated social life. At the age of 12 he enrolled at a prevocational school where he met an inspirational teacher, who was the first person that saw potential in Yaasseen and supported him to prepare for the CPE (certificate of primary education, a certificate that is the deciding factor between whether students can continue to secondary school) despite the fact that Yaaseen had no formal primary education. Yaaseen successfully completed secondary school and went on to receive a Diploma in Information Systems with a Specialization in Multimedia and Web Technology from the Swami Dayanand Institute of Management. Inaccessible environments (even in the schools that he attended) continue to impact his life and unfortunately he is dependent on others when it comes to transport (e.g. public transit is inaccessible to individuals on wheelchairs). Yaasseen’s story is not uncommon, many children with special needs in Mauritius do not receive a quality education that meets their individual needs and there is a large percentage of children with special needs who remain outside of the education system. Societal stigma around disabilities and uninformed parents are reasons why some parents choose to keep their children at home. Children with special needs should be able to learn in an inclusive, safe environment, with professionals who support their individual educational needs and actively help them reach their potential. We as a society have to make the environment more inclusive for individuals with special needs. Accessibility remains at the heart of disability advocacy and inclusion. Actions, especially for individuals like my friend Yaaseen, do speak louder than words. I am inspired everyday working with ELI and bearing witness to the positive impact well delivered programs and committed volunteers make everyday. I am thrilled to see ELI expand its programs to meet the needs of children with special needs.