McLaughlin says ‘cultural shift’ needed on children with disabilities; parents call for changes to law and policy

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Although Premier Alden McLaughlin pointed to a number of accomplishments while in office to assist people with disabilities, comments he made about the limitations of legislation and prevailing cultural attitudes sparked disagreements from political candidates and parents of children with special needs.

On Wednesday, the non-profit Inclusion Cayman (formerly Special Needs Foundation Cayman) hosted its second town hall-style meeting, which was attended by about a dozen candidates, including McLaughlin who is running for re-election in Red Bay.

Inclusion Cayman is advocating for candidates to support a number of initiatives on people with disabilities, in the areas of education, health insurance, and adulthood and employment.

On the subject of education, Inclusion Cayman’s goal is to have “Inclusive Education as a Choice”.

(Inclusive education means children attend the same schools and share the same classroom environment, regardless of needs or disabilities — as opposed to the current system in Cayman, where many students with significant special needs attend the government’s specialised Lighthouse School or have individual placements in private schools.)

Specifically, Inclusion Cayman is calling for:

McLaughlin said these issues are very much on his radar and are something he feels strongly about. For example, McLaughlin cited his leadership on the Bill of Rights in the 2009 Cayman Islands Constitution, and later the Disabilities Policy 2014-2033 and subsequently the 2016 Disabilities (Solomon Webster) Law that, among other provisions, established a National Council for Persons with Disabilities.

McLaughlin said the work being done by the Council has not yet “translated into a cultural shift” in attitudes toward people with disabilities.

Describing Cayman as having been a Third World country that achieved First World status so quickly that Third World vestiges still remain, McLaughlin said he remembers a time when you’d go out to certain districts and children with disabilities would be tied to a rope outside like animals.

He said private schools are often resistant to the concept of inclusion and unlike the public schools, can turn away children with special needs due to concerns over cost, teachers’ stress, impact on exam results, or other parents’ reluctance to have their children share their classroom with children with disabilities.

And although public schools can’t refuse students with special needs, McLaughlin said he strongly suspects that the mainstream public schools try to push parents into moving their children into specialised centres, ostensibly for the students’ own well-being.

He said government can pass all sorts of legislation but the greatest challenge is realising the next cultural shift in how to treat people who are differently abled.

Prospect candidate Michael Myles, who has 15 years of experience in government as a social worker, youth officer and in the Ministry of Education, said all the issues covered during the Inclusion Cayman town hall have “been known about for at least 30 years” in government.

He said the government has the resources and the expertise within the civil service, but spends vast amounts of money on reactionary programmes — such as the Bonaventure Boys Home and the prison system — rather than addressing issues in youth at the earliest age possible.

“I am shocked that we are shocked when they go to prison,” he said.

Myles said the government has at least 10 qualified and capable education psychologists who have been reduced to spending their days “doing reports no one reads”.

He said the government’s entities in related areas such as education, healthcare and social work, are siloed. “No one talks to each other,” Myles said.

“The issue isn’t education; it’s accountability,” he said.

McLaughlin said that under the parliamentary system, politicians have their limits. He said as a lawmaker or minister, it can be difficult to challenge “those who are actually in the education system, the people running the education system, who tell you this cannot work and is not going to work” because if you push them aside “then they go on their own campaign”.

George Town North candidate Johann Moxam described McLaughlin’s remarks as a “politically correct way of saying, ‘I’m buying time.’”

Referring to his experience with Cruise Port Referendum Cayman, Moxam said Inclusion Cayman needs to build an army and create a wave of momentum that alarms the government in power and forces them to make changes. He said he strongly supports the charity’s goals and offered his assistance.

Moxam said, “When somebody says it’s not their fault and laws won’t help — if you’re a legislator and a policymaker, and you don’t believe laws and policies are impactful or making a difference, then maybe you shouldn’t be a politician.”

Moxam told the Current, “Advocacy works when politicians understand the numbers involved and momentum … They only care about voters and their ability to retain power … [McLaughlin’s] comments were shocking and out of touch with the reality parents and families go through.”

Moxam said that with government spending $90 million a year on education, and $170 million on the new John Gray High school, “It’s not about the resources. Surely it’s about the allocation of resources.”

One parent of a child with special needs said during the meeting, “To say it’s a cultural problem is not accurate.”

The parent said they were born in Cayman in the late 1960s, and since then the population has expanded and become far more diverse and accepting of different people and viewpoints.

Other parents at the meeting similarly took issue with McLaughlin’s identifying the problem of inequality for people with disabilities as being cultural, saying that Inclusion Cayman is not asking for a cultural shift in attitudes toward their children, but shifts in government policy, changes to legislation and enforcement of laws.

One parent said that when a child is properly diagnosed at an early age with a particular disability and receives the appropriate treatment and recognition in a mainstream class setting, they have found that the children’s peers are far more accepting, supportive and protective than adults are.

West Bay West candidate Mario Ebanks asked if Inclusion Cayman had been in contact with the Minister of Education with their viewpoints.

CEO Susie Bodden said when Tara Rivers was Minister of Education, they met with her “many, many times”. However, during the past 4 years she has been unable to secure a meeting with the current Minister of Education Juliana O’Connor-Connolly.

Myles told the Current that the government spends tens of millions of dollars prosecuting Caymanians in court, more than $25 million on the prison system, more than $35 million on police, and now more than $50 million on welfare. “The list goes on,” he said.

“For years I have met with successive government which [McLaughlin] has been a part of. They know what the solutions are. They commissioned the reports and have not invested in simple solutions,” he said.

Myles said, “The government lacks WILL to improve our social challenges and education system. There is very little accountability for the lack of results with the millions invested in education.”

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