Differently able

via Trinidad Express Gerard Best gbest@trinidadexpress.com

Monday, February 28th 2005

EDUCATION is the key to improving the lives of the differently able. This statement from President George Maxwell Richards, who delivered the feature address at the opening ceremony of the CariATech Conference on Assistive Technology at the Hilton Trinidad, Port of Spain, on Thursday, set the tone for the two-day event.

The conference featured a series of workshops explaining how assistive technologies such as screen magnification, refreshable Braille, high-resolution tactile graphics, descriptive video, interactive images, Braille music translation, telephony technology for the hearing impaired, and a myriad of other gadgets and gizmos, all specifically designed to give greater empowerment and independence to the differently able.

The conference, which represents one small step towards levelling the fields of employment and education for the differently able, was hosted by the W.R.Torres Foundation for the Blind, recipients of the Hummingbird Medal (Gold) for community service in 2004. Richards took the opportunity to commend the organisers of the conference for their contribution to improving the lives of the vision-impaired and the blind in Trinidad and Tobago.

Although the visually challenged were at the focus of the two-day conference, Torres Foundation President, Ancil Torres, underscored the potential of assistive technologies to improve the lives of all differently able people, including hearing-impaired, physically disabled and visually challenged.

"We realised, back in 2000, that the world was evolving into the technology haves and the technology have-nots, and that the have-nots were going to be left behind," Torres said, pointing out that the conference also marked the fifth anniversary of the establishment of the Foundation.

"I, as a blind person, felt that blind people this time were not going to be left behind. With my skills as a computer instructor and technology specialist, I had some understanding of the issues," Torres continued, highlighting the importance of the various assistive technologies on display at the conference to any effort to integrate the differently able into twenty-first century society.

"I lived in the United Statesand I was lucky to benefit from access to assistive technologies and the things that they made possible for me. I felt that I had to come to Trinidadand essentially spread the gospel about it," said Torres.

Torres Foundation Director of Programs and Services, Alicia Lalite, echoed the sentiment, describing the conference as "an opportunity for empowerment, independence and growth." She added that, in terms of public response, the event was "a tremendous success." The attendance on the first day of the conference was more than twice what the organisers had anticipated.

Billed as the first of its kind in the Caribbean, the conference united people from many Caribbean islands, including Barbados, St Lucia, Antigua, St Vincent, St Thomas and the Virgin Islands and Jamaica, with participants from the School for the Deaf, School for the Blind, Blind Welfare Association, National Centre for Persons with Disabilities, along with representatives from the Office of the Prime Minister, Social Services Delivery and the Employers Consultative Association.

Capitalising on the multinational audience, Jamaican Senator and Minister of State in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, Floyd Morris, called for an accelerated movement to complete the process toward a regional policy for the differently able, a process started in May 2004 with the signing of the Kingston Accord by several Caricom member territories.

For his part, George Daniel, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Chapter of Disabled People International, who is currently involved in the process of formulating an action plan for the implementation of a national policy for the differently able, described the conference as "an asset to that process."