Her Excellency Mrs Reema Carmona Address at the Tree Lighting Ceremony For Autism Awareness Month – 2015

Her Excellency Reema Carmona address at the Tree Lighting Ceremony for Autism Awareness Month at the Bandstand in the Botanical Gardens on March 27, 2015. The following is the entire content of Her Excellency’s address.

As patron of the Autistic Society for some two years, I have been blessed to be given the opportunity to be part of a special world, rather, to open a door to a special house that everyone knows exists and yet sometimes pretends it does not, or simply refuses to enter it – the house of the differently abled. What has propelled some citizens’ indifference or apathy towards those living in that house has often been sometimes blind ignorance or a lack of care or genuine compassion. We do not explore the pluses of the differently abled and how they can benefit the society in real terms. They have competencies that can be nurtured like anyone else. We have timeworn soldiers fighting in the trenches to raise awareness, and by extension creating an environment that is just and fair to the differently abled. I have been privileged to encounter a few among the growing numbers, like Dr. Nathalie Dick, Dr. Beverly Beckles, and Mr. Glen Niles. They have continued like all of you here, both by your presence and endeavours, to bring much needed light to that special house, the house of autism and by extension the house of the differently abled.

This simple ceremony today is a preface of what is to come. On the 2nd April the whole world will celebrate World Autism Awareness Day, and because my family and I will be abroad, I decided to continue what we begun last year and what we hope will become a tradition in Trinidad and Tobago – the lighting up of tress and buildings in blue to raise autism awareness throughout this Republic.

I salute the National Centre for Persons with Disabilities, the Caribbean Kids and Families Therapy Organization, the Down Syndrome Family Network and importantly, the Autistic Society of Trinidad and Tobago and other NGOs for championing the cause of the differently abled. You all have done so much to give voices to the voiceless, and you have demonstrated the power of enlightenment and that has inspired us all to be here today.

As I indicated last year, there is a need for more sustainable, collaborative efforts at the national and international levels to support those individuals and their families impacted by autism and other developmental disabilities. It indeed heartens me to see that moves continue to be made to ensure that measures are taken to support the differently abled via greater financial assistance and by ensuring that they enjoy full access to public services. However we cannot be complacent. In this regard, assistance must not only be governmental. I entreat the corporate world to get on board in real terms, not by giving alms, or handouts, or buying and printing jerseys for events that celebrate Autism. The corporate world must not engage in well-intentioned but misplaced charity, rather, genuinely come on board by policy initiatives that ensure that a percentage of your working population comprise of differently abled persons who are competent for the tasks allotted. We need, and desperately so, opportunity equality. In simple language – begin employing autistic persons, persons with Down Syndrome, and other differently abled persons. They are all specially gifted persons that can illuminate both your work environment and your personal lives.

I do recall that the Spanish oil company RepSol, has a traditional policy of ensuring that at least three percent of its working staff is differently abled. Inclusivity must therefore be the mantra as it relates to the differently abled in all sectors of our society, and we must start at the workplace. The differently abled do not want charity, they want opportunity and inclusivity. I draw inspiration from Canada and the Canadian approach can be fully implemented in our education system. The Canadian system makes use of Adaptations to the school curriculum to enable children with learning disabilities to be included in the normal school environment. It provides peer tutors and transition periods for special needs students as they transition from school to the world of work. These practices instil confidence in our special needs students and teach their peers tolerance, things that are much needed in our society today.

We must therefore look to our Montessori Schools and Early Childhood Centres as places where early identification of learning disorders can take place. I am aware that plans are afoot to have diagnostic evaluations done at Early Childhood Centres by trained practitioners. However, we need to further train parents, siblings and teachers to be tolerant. In this regard, we need to train our Montessori teachers to recognize the early signs of developmental disorders and how to handle them and thus put the proper support systems in place to give our differently abled children the best chance of leading as normal a life as possible.

Ladies and gentlemen, It gives me great pleasure to invite you to accompany me to a tree of blue light, a tree of light and hope as we continue to recognize and celebrate World Autism Awareness Day.