Meeting special education needs in Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines

Read how Eastern Caribbean states are strengthening support for children with special education needs and opening dialogue about inclusive education.

June 26, 2024 by OECS Commission
4 minutes read
A student at the Alpha Center in Dominica participates in The National Child Disability and Special Education Needs (SEN) survey.
A student at the Alpha Center in Dominica participates in the national child disability and special education needs (SEN) survey.
Credit: OECS

At 15 years old, Ben* has been out of school for three years. He is autistic and non-verbal and was attending a school for students with special education needs, but his parents withdrew him because they felt his needs were not being met.

“Ben was at the special school paid for by the government, but they were not meeting his needs. He is non-verbal, so there were some services we needed. But he wasn’t getting speech therapy; he was regressing. Because my husband and I were [already] working with him at home, I took him out of school.”

Heather Fellows*, mother of Ben, a 15-year-old with special education needs, Dominica

Ben lives in Dominica, on the outskirts of the capital city, Roseau. When he was born, his mother Heather chose to stop working and stay home to care for him and his three siblings. Ben’s father, Lawrence*, became the sole breadwinner for the family but has worked intermittently due to ongoing health issues.

When Ben’s parents opted to withdraw him from school, they were determined to work with him at home as best they could. They involved Ben in everyday activities and taught him how to count out loud from one to 10, but they lamented the fact that he could be making more progress with the proper support.

One day in September 2022, Heather was listening to the radio and heard a presentation by the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Programme for Educational Advancement and Relevant Learning (PEARL). They were launching The National Child Disability and Special Education Needs (SEN) survey to:

  • Document the prevalence of disability and SEN across OECS member states
  • Collect data on school-aged children with disabilities and SEN who are both in and out of school
  • Identify the facilities and resources available for children with disabilities and SEN, and the gaps to be addressed.

Upon hearing of the survey and the intended outcomes, Heather reached out to the OECS PEARL team immediately, seeking to participate in the survey and obtain support for her son.

She explained, “I think what you all are doing is a wonderful thing. There are a lot of children like my son, and they are passing under the radar.”

The OECS PEARL Special Education Needs Focal Point and the National Coordinator in Dominica have been liaising with Heather and Lawrence, and they are designing a targeted package of support for Ben beyond the administration of the survey.

Better support for children with special needs

A student at the Alpha Center in Dominica participates in the national child disability and special education needs (SEN) survey.
A student at the Alpha Center in Dominica participates in the national child disability and special education needs (SEN) survey.

For many parents of children with special education needs, this intervention represents a promise of support that is lacking in the education systems across Eastern Caribbean Island nations.

The OECS administered the SEN survey in nine member states, and a GPE grant of US$10 million for the period 2021–2025 supported administering the survey in the four member states that are GPE partner countries, including Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Across all members states, over 5,250 surveys were collected.

Data collected by the survey is informing policies and planning at the national and regional levels to expand SEN services. For example, assistive devices have been procured and delivered to several participating countries to support the learning of students identified as having special education needs.

The survey results have also informed training for classroom teachers and specialists who respond to the needs of special education needs students.

Opening dialogue about inclusive education

Not all parents were as easy to reach as Ben’s mother, and some were less eager to participate in the survey. It can be difficult to talk about disabilities and SEN and ask for support.

To encourage participation in the survey, an awareness campaign was launched before the start of the survey and remained active during the survey period.

It helped raise awareness about the importance of making education inclusive of students with special needs, and opened dialogue that is often muted by social stigma around disabilities.

“The awareness campaign gave people the courage to reach out for assistance, so the dialogue was opened by the survey. The sensitization that took place alongside the survey helped to increase interest and participation.”

Ms. Brown, specialist, Grenada

Ms. Brown adds, “Parents don’t want their children to be labeled. It's about the sort of dialogue happening with parents about when their child enters school and how they would benefit. And if the school is aware of children having special education needs, they can prepare to support them.”

By acknowledging the challenges faced by SEN students and their families, and by prioritizing inclusive education at the national and regional levels, more children like Ben will get the education they deserve.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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