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Low Turnout Fails To Quell Special Olympians' Spirits

March 29, 2009 — Joy transcended disabilities for around 30 Special Olympians that turned out for the St. Thomas-St. John district competition Saturday morning at Charlotte Amalie High School.
“The kids love it,” said Felicita Richards, Department of Education district director of special education. “They’re earning these medals with such enthusiasm and such fervor."
Special-needs athletes from area schools and Yellow Cedar Group Home at Anna’s Retreat took to the courts, track and field to test their skills in tennis and softball throws, standing long jumps, basketball skills, 25 meter and 50 meter runs, and wheelchair races.
Volunteers outnumbered the entrants by about 4 to 1 and showed enthusiasm and support throughout the event. But many, like CAHS special education teacher Edwin Forbes, were disappointed in the turnout.
Forbes said he hoped more senators would have showed up or urged residents to show more support for the children.
“Tell them how important it is for these athletes because we have to raise funds to go to the (regional games in the) Bahamas and the national games in the states,” Forbes said. “There are no funds. We really need money to get these kids involved in the community. We really need to implement more effort towards education, especially in the area of funds.”
One of the two senators that did show was Wayne James. He said the schools are doing a “great job” of offering inclusion and general curriculum integration but agreed that something more needs to be done.
“I think we need a more visible approach to what we’re doing,” James said. “They don’t see the people enough and that’s the problem. We need to recognize now that they are here. They are here and they need social services.”
He also said part of the problem is how the islands have dealt with social services culturally.
“The presumption is that ‘oh yeah, that person has a family member that will feed him and clothe him and house him,’” James said. “That’s sort of an old cultural presumption that has carried over and it is no longer relevant because people are now nuclear families living in their individual homes in some little suburb.
"They don’t interact with their neighbors. They get in their car and they go to work. And so if they have a disabled child, we as a larger community, we don’t even see them,” he said.
The issue goes deeper, according to Jane Brown, St. Thomas/St. John Special Olympics coordinator.
“Forty-six percent of high school dropouts in the Virgin Islands are special needs children,” Brown said. She also said part of the problem is identifying special needs children at a younger age, and that those with less severe, less visible disabilities like attention deficit disorder, mild autism, or dyslexia go undetected.
“If you don’t identify it before they get to high school, what happens is they can’t keep up and they drop out,” she said.
Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis did make a surprise appearance. When asked about the lack of funding for afternoon programs for special needs children he said, “That’s something we are addressing because although they are physically challenged they should not be separated.”
Francis offered no specifics but added, “I know with the stimulus package we got, Human Services, they've been very proactive. It’s not like in the past where we try to react to certain issues. This administration, we are being very proactive to the needs of the physically challenged.”
At the end of the day, though, the issues surrounding funding and public awareness for special needs children were trumped by the excitement and empowerment of the athletes. They received medals for participation and victories along with a congratulatory certificate of participation from Sen. Patrick Sprauve.
The Special Olympics committee is seeking corporate sponsorship for some of the best athletes to send them to the Bahaman regional event. If interested, contact Archie Jennings at 776-4303.
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