Perspective: Open the doors to education – and employment

By Ivory Duncan

Like me, countless other young people with disabilities are striving towards a future that cannot be taken for granted. Will we overcome the physical and financial barriers to higher education? If we make it through to graduation from university or vocational school, what jobs await us? Will we have equal opportunity, or face discrimination? Will we get the chance to prove ourselves in the competitive world of employment? And if not, how are we to be full citizens and producers, members of society in equal standing with those who do not have disabilities?

I lost my right leg following a traffic accident when I was 15 years old. My parents, people of humble means, persevere in helping to meet my expenses so I can pursue a university education, even as they try to raise two other children with disabilities. Life can be hard, but I am grateful for my good fortune: I have a loving family and am working to accomplish my dream of getting a degree and having a career.

Fulfilling our dreams takes effort not required of young people without disabilities. To get from home to the university, I have no option but to go by taxi because the only other way would be to take a boat or cross the Demerara Harbour Bridge, neither of which I can do in my wheelchair. Paying for a taxi is expensive, and my parents struggle to make ends meet. Attending university is also a physical challenge. It is difficult making my way to classes because the classrooms are often not accessible to wheelchair users. There are long flights of stairs, and when I finally manage to get to a class, I am tired and frustrated and find it hard to focus on the lectures. But I am trying because I know it is better to try and fail than to fail to try.

The challenges begin long before reaching higher education. Children with disabilities can easily become shut-ins, hidden away from society and unable to attend school or make a meaningful contribution to society. They should be encouraged to attend mainstream schools if possible, while special schools that include vocational training and support services should also be available. Special-needs schools should offer a complete curriculum for students with disabilities, to help to develop their minds and give them opportunities to achieve academic excellence.

Many children and young people with disabilities want to go on to higher education, so it is very important that they be included in schools and other learning institutions and given the same options as other students in terms of choosing courses and activities. It is up to educational institutions and governments to accommodate and support students like me, so that we are able to pursue the education we need to achieve whatever goals we may have. 

Accommodating children and young people with disabilities includes things like adjusting the entry requirements and criteria for passing, and making sure that learning materials, examinations and class schedules take our needs into account. Teachers need to be properly trained and given a chance to pursue additional overseas instruction in order to improve the quality of education. Schools should teach Braille and other forms of communication where necessary, and there is also a great need for special equipment, which many schools in Guyana do not have. Making educational institutions disability-friendly also means setting up facilities and transportation services that persons with disabilities can use; there should be ramps for wheelchair users, accessible toilets and elevators for people who cannot take the stairs. All aspects and all levels of education, from elementary school to university, need to be made accessible.

The ministries for education and public service should also work together to assist academically inclined students with disabilities who wish to go beyond secondary school. Because financial difficulties are a major reason why young people with disabilities are unable to continue their education, this assistance should include grants, loans and scholarships.

Governments also need to make sure that education opens the same doors for students with disabilities as for everybody else. My parents have put in a lot of effort and more money than they can really afford to help me to get through school and to university – and now I am working hard, in spite of the challenges, to come to classes and learn, because I know that is what I need to do to get the best out of life. So I would also like to be confident that when I graduate and look for a job, I will not be discriminated against because of my disability, but instead be recognized for my abilities, qualifications and potential. As a young person with a disability who has worked hard to educate herself, I deserve as much as anyone else the opportunity to fulfill my dreams, make a good living for myself and contribute to our society.

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