By Yvonne Reynolds

Antigua Smile Cafe is the brain-child of Jacqueline Butler -a pragmatic, pro-active, dedicated, caring and visionary special educator.  She exudes compassion, empathy, and intelligence, encased within a can dospirit.  Her ready smile, gentle spirit and soothing tone bathes you in a comfortable acceptance of self.  She is a natural special educator, among a unique breed of educators, totally committed to improving the outcomes of students, regardless of capability, capacity or income.  

Her bio reveals a lifetime service supporting development and improvement of a group she euphemistically calls “the disadvantaged”.  Butler’s career began in health-care and migrated to education.  Her late husband’s job enabled her living in different countries where she (housewife, mother) always gravitated to volunteering in projects caring for the “least of these”.  The family finally settled in Antigua where, once again, her lifelong compassion for the disadvantaged led her to activities among the special education population, ultimately becoming employed in this sector and from which she has never left. (teaching at the public self-contained special education primary school and a consultant student skills assessor) 

A few years ago Mrs. Butler began planning for the realization of her dream to create an avenue where her special education student-graduates positively participate in the labour force, – contributing to the economic development of the country, instead of being idle with no life purpose. Her Facebook page speaks to her operationalization efforts to ameliorate the current plight of students with disability (SWD). Her newly created foundation – the actualization of her dream -has already been active – conducting several events such as pop-up shops which showcase and demonstrate the life skills learned by her students. 

Along with a gofundme page, funding is primarily through fundraisers.  The second fundraiser, a Christmas Tea, was a well attended success.  If it follows the well established American trend of non-profit charity events becoming a must go socializing extravaganza, then I am predicting that this first foundational Christmas Tea will become a longstanding social tradition. The event’s purpose was not only to raise funds to underwrite operational activities, but was an occasion for these new graduates to showcase their learned hospitality life skills (capabilities, personalities) to potential employers or referees.  It is a tax deductible occasion for affluent elites, but more to the point, the evening was about the charitees (student graduates) and it is to them and their possible future prospects that this article is dedicated.

The Rise of the Disabled

Disability comes in diverse forms (physical/mental).  The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)demands that societies change how they perceive and treat persons with disabilities (PWDs).  While extensively broadening the category of people deemed disabled, its edicts have created a new international power group, competitively jostling on the political stakeholderglobal agenda-setting power field.  In the Caribbean, most countriesimmediately welcomed, ratified and integrated the Convention’s principles.  Jamaica and Antigua & Barbuda (A&B) were first to the table as Agreement signatories.  The percentage of persons with disabilities world-wide has grown exponentially – fed by genetics, diseases, accidents, wars, ageing, birth rates and pharmaceuticals. Demands by the disabled population are sluggishly pushing through the maelstrom of domestic issues competing in the media coverage landscape.

According to the World Bank, “One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability, and disability prevalence is higher for developing countries. One-fifth of the estimated global total, or between 110 million and 190 million people, experience significant disabilities.”   Jones and Serieux-Lubin (2018)situation analysis on the status of the disabled, contextualizes human rights and public policy influences.  It provides an eye opening chronological and predictive examination of legislation and statistical data affecting PWD’ socio-economic treatment and prevalence in the Caribbean.  Although the percentage of PWDs in the population has declined since 2000, (individual country census data) ageing, an input contributing factor to disability, along with inter-country migration (freedom of movement-language differences) may change this figurein the future.  

SWDs – Students with disabilities – grow up to become persons with disabilities (PWDs). PWDs are our fellow citizens and neighbors, an integral part of our society.  They tend to be designated or perceived as a negative drag (welfare dependent) or a positive asset (employed participant) on the national net economy. Willfully ignoring certain sectors of society – minorities, women, poor, disabled – has been the global traditional norm.  PWDs, worldwide, are way behind the societal asset curve.  Legislation granting full citizenship rights has been a long time coming. In Caribbean countries, there is a prolonged gap between the introduction of universal access to education (public school for all) and formal (legislation) recognition of an existing group of citizens (the disabled) as full participants in society. 

Like their abused citizen-peers still struggling to overcome racism, misogyny, and poverty, PWDs are subjected to discriminatory practices that coercively exclude them from the labour market.  Their abilities, capabilities and worthiness have been questioned since the dawn of time. Past and current struggles are mirrored by other groups who dared demand equal treatment and justice in all aspects of life.  The challenges PWDs will face and overcome, are foreshadowed by the fights, victories, pitfalls and possibilities experienced by the aforementioned groups (minorities, women, poor).  Emerging stakeholder strident demands for full physical access (handicap pathways, ramps, signs, parking etc.) and education inclusion, is propelling modern society towards an evolving understanding (zeitgeist change) for mandatory provision of support services and de-stigmatization initiatives that lead to equality and equity for all citizens. 

The new awakening in A&B and the Caribbean at large, regarding societal as well as governmental obligations and responsibilities for successfully integrating fellow citizens – persons with disabilities with physical and/or mental challenges – is encouraging and heartening.  Countries who expanded their labour force have realized an increased fungible, monetized national asset worth.   The addition of females, the poor and a racially diverse participatory work-force facilitated this phenomenal growth in gross domestic product (GDP) and accelerated the aggregation of intellectual, innovative capital.  Global growth and sustainability relies on having more people join the productivity bandwagon, expanding the pie/pool driving the world market.  Google search exposes the many online websites and physical organizations (government and private) that cater to PWD employment – even top online employment agencies/websites (Indeed) have a section devoted to opportunities for PWDs.  While employment has improved over the past twenty-five years (increase dependent onlevel of development in a country), the quality of jobsoffered to PWDs still remain a major concern.  

Employing those “left behind

Employment for PWDs is largely dependent on the dominant industries which comprise their residential economic market.  Job availability also relies on educational opportunities: – quality, access – and the technological sophistication integrated into the society.  According to a recent ECLAC report (2018, p7)

Across the Caribbean, few schools, workplaces, public spaces, buildings, transport systems and cultural services are designed to be accessible to persons with disabilities. They are therefore excluded from participation in activities which others take for granted with serious implications for their social and economic well-being. Persons with disabilities experience worse outcomes in education, employment, health and housing among other areas. This systematic discrimination is now widely recognized as violating fundamental human rights.    

Today most Caribbean nations are primarily dependent on the tourism market sector for labour participation and international currency.  Many economies consist predominantly of low-end services and consumerism with government the employer in chief.  In a global interconnected food web, Caribbean nations are highly vulnerable to the decisions and vicissitude of its external environment.  Regional institutions create a stronger barrier to the negative influences transported through the linkages.  As a ground swell for more coordination, cooperation and collaboration between regional members rise to the top of the political agenda, domestic national policies must be examined to see how their internal economic potential can be maximized to strengthen the whole.  Best practices should become models as experimental crucibles and a resource for creative thinking.  [ASEAN, EU, OECS, – stronger as a sum of its parts].   

Jobs which need manual and low functioning cerebral skills are great generic areas which can be perfect fits for PWDs.  Jobs involving repetitive tasks that create an established routine are ideal for certain categories of the disabled (e.g. Learning, Autism, Down syndrome).  People with disabilities can and should be incorporated into the service economy and in an emerging light manufacturing.  The political challenge is that disabled people must compete with non-disabled persons who are currently un-/under-employed, or who work in low paying service occupations.  The Caribbean suffers from unacceptably low academic achievement levels, have few vocational centers and experiences an out-migration brain drain (deficit in adequate job availability and remuneration).  Leaders are behind the curve in properly predicting and creating a comprehensive plan that includes all sectors of society.  Ideas and implementation have been in short supply. 

Most physically disabled people have normal brain function and can do well in society if given the tools (prosthetics, etc.) to eliminate/mitigate the disabled-non disabled gap.  Creating self-sustaining light industry workshops that address the need for PWD supportive tools should be explored.  This is not impossible – India is a shining example of this type of ingenuity and productivity.  Practically, it can be considered as shoe-making or tailoring/dress-making. Yes this idea may seem medieval (resurrecting a dead industry which has technologically evolved) but it will provide skills acquisition, employment, a local money multiplier, less use of foreign currency, tangible goods production, and most importantly, an environment for nurturing creative thinking.  Ironically, castaway industries are now the customized province of the wealthy – a money making juggernaut under-girding the creativity driven fashion industry.  Economic productivity is not realized by importing the latest cars or luxury items which do not add to economic health, and are actually extractors,  Idle hands and minds are not a positive economic contributor.   

The power and potential of the PWD sector of the labour market is gaining momentum. Assistive technologies have enhanced PWD’ quality of life – changing the way the blind see the world (Smartcane) the deaf hear the world (tools,surgery); physically disabled persons navigate or manipulate their surroundings (limbsarms,legs,quadriplegics-whole body) and helps students “normalize” their classroom.  Unfortunately most technology tools are too expensive – out of reach of citizens from developing countries.  A future game-changer for some Caribbean PWDs’ labour participation and productivity, is the regional governments’ Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU) which, under the umbrella of its ICT for People with Disabilities initiative, is bringing newly affordable technologies to Caribbean citizens.  A free appfor the visually or hearing impaired that facilitates access to the internet and hence the world, allowing a hearing person to communicate with a deaf person, (provider: The Caribbean Video Assistance Service) is now available to Caribbean residents. 

Uniting a Dream with Reality 

Mrs Butler’s dream to create an organization that helps SWDs (specifically the learning disabled) gain employment in the society, is finally a reality.  A learning disability diagnosis is usually assigned to children who are low achieving, producing below standard expectations and deemed in need of remediation.  The causes can range from the biological (brain-memory, processing) through to attention deficits, laziness (habits of the mind) to mis-education (environment:-school, home).  This disability category has been tweaked andsubdividedto encompass a large pool of students found in schools.  Learning disability has attracted solutions from medication to diverse intervention tools. Lifetime quality of life issues for these students urgently need to be addressed.

Today, children with disabilities routinely attend the same public schools as children without disabilities. But this was not always the case.  In most Caribbean countries inclusive educationis the preferred alternative to self-contained schools.  Self-contained special education schools tend to be populated by children who exhibit extreme symptoms.  Given the poor results of student outcomesthroughout the Caribbean it may be that learning disabilityis not always properly identified, and appropriate interventions implemented.  Although there is a lack of statistical studies focusing on teacher quality in Caribbean schools, traditional pedagogy alone cannot account for the unacceptable student results (even when environmental factors such as home environment are accounted for).  High levels of unemployment or underemployment cannot be satisfactorily alleviated by the practice of parents or relatives apprenticing their children into their small businesses.  

A study by Schmid, Vézina & Ebbeson (2008)is an informative socio-economic analysis of PWDS in Antigua and Barbuda (along with three other Caribbean countries).  It provides the research-based rationale for Smile Cafe foundation’s goal and mission – to enable and support a successful transition from school to lifetime career. These students need opportunities and career choices befitting their capabilities.  Currently, they are societal throwaways, left behind by a myopic willfulness that discount them as “different”, “abnormal”, “exception”, “special”.  Butler’s work in a self-contained school affords an opportunity to showcase their potential capacity.  The mantle for funding must be taken up by both public (government: seed money, coordinate a meta-umbrella institution) and private venture capital/grants (businesses, NGOS, individuals) sectors.  With the reality of a hospitality dominated economy, the organization is tailoring much of its students skills’ acquisition on low-level services.  

The pop-up shops operated by the foundation utilize the teaching of basic culinary arts (juice making, fruit stews) and rudimentary money change making from sales – lessons taught to students.  Suggested future possibilities for expanding job offerings to transition SWD-graduates could be light manufacturing factory workers – making fruit stews or juices for online distribution, or creating locally created and madeunique trinket templates for tourists – hotel/cruise ship sales, or tradition infused dolls which play locally produced calypso.  The primary market could target diaspora citizens who want to support their fellow citizens along with satiating a nostalgia for their culture. The technological revolution has made geography irrelevant when marketing products.

An interesting study on why tourists purchase souvenirs (2008) explores the rationales for tourist shopping, based on sale offering type and the proclivities of different groupings.  The research findings are intended to help retailers choose the projects they sell, based on the profile of the tourists who visit their area. This knowledge can be used to customize the choices of trinkets made and offered for sale.  I mention this particularly as the Smile Cafe foundation sells pottery mugs with art/painting done by students.  [one of the ten variable choices in the study and one which had a significant positive response from interviewees].  This is new disruptive thinking – PWDs in the Caribbean joining the exclusive club of intellectual property rights owners, leveraging their future labour participation as producers and not consumers, thinking both locally and globally.   

Another variable to bear in mind when choosing created and made inproducts for visitors is whether they vacation in self-contained all inclusive hotels, regular hotels which encourage extensive local explorations, AirBnBs or cruise ship visits.   The employment generating projects undertaken, will force interconnections with other domestic industries, (agriculture, transportation, container storage, post office/customs, etc.) organizations/corporations and individuals – economic multiplier factors.  Attracting tourist dollars along with domestic currency is an imperative governing future decision-making.  The foundation has embraced a culminating aspirational vision of individual self-sufficiency at a maximum, and income producer at a minimum, for each student. Mrs. Butler hopes to create sustainable stand-alone businesses that employ student graduates, and successfully transition them at all levels of the business, as they acquire a diversity of skills.  

Finally, in general, PWDs themselves are full of ideas about viable projects that match their capabilities and realize a positive economic benefit.  Many are already entrepreneurs, realizing their economic independence.  Others need help and support to become income earners.  Governments should invite input and seriously consider implementing submissions.  Fully incorporating the disabled in productive sectors can be a daunting task for the pioneers.  This is not an insurmountable obstacle for persons with disability and their supporters however, having faced opposition all their lives and overcome numerous skeptics and naysayers.  Everyone deserves a helping hand.  In a final self reflection, continuing the quote with which I started: 

 ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Matthew 25:40-45

The author is an educator who can be reached at conbelach15@gmail.com