Helping those with special needs
Terminology is a sensitive issue. Because you, our readers, come from such a wide range of places, we are certain to use words that some of you find patronizing or, at worst, offensive. Please accept that our intentions are good—and remember that “moron” and “idiot” used to be non-derogatory scientific terms!
“Special needs” will be used to refer to anyone who needs extra help in the educational process, whether for physical, mental, emotional or behavioral reasons.
What are some of the positive aspects of living in the D.R. with a special needs child?
The Dominican Republic can be a very good place for families with members who have special needs. Home help is affordable, which should lighten the load for parents. Year-round good weather allows children to participate in outdoor activities for twelve months of the year. There are many inexpensive places for children to take classes in music, art, sports and so forth—and children with disabilities are often welcomed. (Two recent examples include a boy with Down’s Syndrome who participated in his older sister’s gymnastics class and a deaf child who danced as one of the swans in a performance of the ballet “Swan Lake.”)
Some parents have noted that Dominican youngsters seem very accepting of “different” children, giving them a chance to interact which they may not have with the more impatient, compatriot peers. In addition, the family is not restricted to “what the local school offers,” as would be the case in the United States, for instance. Private teachers and tutors are affordable, which makes tailor-made programs possible.
What are some of the more difficult aspects?
In the past, children with special needs in the Dominican Republic were often “hidden away.” There is still a general sense that a child who looks “normal” is more acceptable than one who does not. When first contacting a school by phone, some have questioned parents about a child’s appearance—rather than academic or other achievements.
People from other countries sometimes feel that Dominicans are looking too intently at them. This lack of adherence to the old motto, “It’s not polite to stare,” may particularly bother the family of a child with special needs—although, in fact, it tends to happen to everyone.
There is an equally disconcerting frankness in conversation, even from complete strangers: “You poor dear!” “How do you manage?” “Why don’t you have surgery done on her?” “I couldn’t stand to have a child like that.”
At times, outdated information, methods, or terminology are in evidence. For example, parents are not always welcome to take part in their child’s treatment, a standard procedure in other parts of the world. Many professionals take a very directive approach, placing great emphasis on “discipline.” Therapy may be viewed as similar to medicine: the child must take it whether he likes it or not.
Training standards vary widely, so some “experts” may not have the background that a person coming from another country might expect. To provide just one example, it is possible to be called a psychologist after just three years of study at a technical institute.
The greatest difficulty, however, is the scarcity of schools or therapy services for older children, especially for those with physical problems or mental retardation.
What can I do in advance to make the best of the situation?
First, gather as much information as you can about your child’s condition and the possible treatments. Explain your situation to any professionals working with your child before you arrive here. They will often be willing to take more time to share information with you if they know that you may not have access to equivalent therapy services in the future. Prepare to do things on your own. It may be helpful to make a plan to return to your home country for periodic evaluations and suggestions for your child’s treatment.
Be sure to thoroughly investigate various treatment programs, while you have information readily available. Therapy methods go in and out of fashion. You will be in a better position to decide if a program will benefit your child if you have already investigated a wide range of options.
It may be helpful to contact parents of children with special needs who are already living here. Some parents welcome telephone calls from people who would like help in getting started. Patty Long, 530-6761, speaks English and Spanish and is particularly knowledgeable about Down’s Syndrome and services for pre-schoolers. Tracy Asmussen, 541-0490, speaks English and German and is well-informed about autism and services for school-aged children. Gloria Hernández, 562-2565, 547-3306 or 549-5490, has recently organized a number of activities to help parents and professionals to begin to “network.” A brief directory of services should soon be available. Lic. Hernández speaks both Spanish and English.
How should I go about finding the appropriate services for my child?
It will take time and energy to find—or, more likely, create—the best program for your child. Use the following list of resources as a “jumping off point.” It is essential to make visits in person for a first-hand impression of what is being offered. Prices vary widely, even within the same facility, as some therapists work on a sliding scale.
Remember that an individual teacher or therapist may be more important than the school in general. Good results can be obtained even where there are seemingly inadequate facilities. Be willing to invest your time in improving the environment, if necessary.
Take all claims of “miracle cures” with a grain of salt. Find out the theoretical basis on which they are made, the segment of population the treatments are most successful with—and be sure to ask for the names of the previous clients for references.
If you are planning to be here for some time, it may be worth starting a new school. There are many families with children whose needs are not presently being met, who might be interested in joining forces for a new venture. Many of the existing programs were originally started by parents who could not find adequate services for their children.
What possibilities are there for babies or young children?
The government-sponsored Centro de Rehabilitación has an early intervention program (in Spanish only) on an outpatient basis. The Center is located on Calle San Francisco de Macorís Street, at the corner of Leopoldo Navarro, not far from 27 de Febrero. Tel. 688-1566 or 689-7151. The Fundación Dominicana para Niños con Necesidades Especiales (FUDNES) has an afternoon therapy program (also in Spanish) for babies and toddlers at the “Habil” school facilities on José Contreras, between Alma Mater and Abraham Lincoln. Call. 532-7797 for directions.
What about my pre-school aged child?
Because pre-school and kindergarten programs are flexible, your child can possibly be “mainstreamed” without difficulty. Some English-language schools have demonstrated a willingness to accept children with special needs. My Little School, Calle Boy Scout No. 10 in Ensanche Naco, Tel. 565-1370, has a very creative teaching approach. Many of the schools listed below will accept children with special needs.
What facilities are available for people with mental handicaps?
For children with mental—and some physical—handicaps, the biggest center is the government-sponsored Asociación de Rehabilitación, mentioned earlier. Services include physical therapy, speech therapy, a school, workshops, and an employment program for adults.
Instituto de Educación Especial Escuela Granja Taller, located at Independencia No. 1071, Tel. 533-9473, is a private alternative to the above, offering an educational program for children of ages 4 to 18. It has a number of different programs and will also board pupils. There are some foreign children at the school, but services are primarily provided in Spanish.
Dulce Milagro is a school for profoundly mentally handicapped children. It is located at H. Manzano No. 50 in Arroyo Hondo, Tel. 566-6066.
El Arca de la República Dominicana, Las Cayenas No. 1, Tel. 561-0097, is a branch of an international organization striving to promote a spiritual community with a family atmosphere among those with mental handicaps.
Taller Protegido, Calle Guarocuya in Ensanche Quisqueya, is a center which was founded by the mother of a mentally retarded child. It accepts children of any age into the program, which runs from 8 am to 4 pm. Tel. 566-5342 or 565-8928.
What other specialized services are there?
Centro Especializado Kairos, Prolongación Bolívar No. 313 ,Tel. 533-5912, is a Spanish-language school for children aged 4 to 18 specializing in learning difficulties. The degree of disability varies greatly; a number of “normal” children also attend.
FUDNES sponsors a very small school called “Habil,” specializing in the Spanish-language education of children with cerebral palsy and other physical handicaps. The staff includes physical, occupational, speech, and music therapists. It is located on José Contreras, between Alma Mater and Abraham Lincoln, Tel. 532-7797.
La Casa Rosada is a small Spanish-language school exclusively for autistic children. It is located at Aristides García Mella No. 28 corner Dolores Rodríguez Objío, Mirador del Sur, Tel. 530-5080.
There are numerous schools for deaf children, including the Instituto de Ayuda al Sordo Santa Rosa, located at Luis F. Thomen No. 616, Tel. 530-3275 or 531-8653 and the National School for the Deaf in Arroyo Hondo, Tel. 567-7120. Both education and residential care are provided by the Centro Cristiano de Asistencia al Sordo, located in Los Tres Brazos, Tel. 597-4282.
The Patronato Nacional de Ciegos, Inc., Correa y Cidron No. 24 (at the corner of Huascar Tejada), Tel. 533-2933 or 535-4325, has a school, workshop, employment program and other services for people who are blind. There is also a National School for the Blind (Escuela Nacional de Ciegos), located, appropriately enough, at Luis Braille No. 1, in the university area, Tel. 532-3613.
What are additional possibilities for school-aged children?
You may want to enroll your child at one of the English-language private schools, most of which have psychologists or other special services. The most prestigious prefer not to take students with disabilities, so it may be something of a struggle. Remember that it will not be worth the effort if your child does not get the support he needs.
The George Washington School, 26 de Enero No. 3, Tel. 532-1279 and 535-6019, has accepted a number of children with learning difficulties.
Universidad del Niño on Av. Independencia has a number of children with Down’s Syndrome, although it is not primarily a special education facility.
The Mundo Alegre school at Calle Hatuey in Evaristo Morales neighborhood, has integrated a number of children with difficulties into its programs.
Montessori schools generally offer flexible, individual curriculums. There are at least two in Santo Domingo: Primaria Montessori at Luis F. Thomen accepts children with Down Syndrome, as have the Instituto Montessori, J. Sánchez No. 3, Tel. 687-7820, and Colegio Maternal Montessori, S. Sánchez No. 158 in Gazcue, Tel. 682-6489.
Elizabeth Miladeh is a qualified English-speaking diagnostician and tutor for children with learning disabilities (apparently the only one in the country). Tel. 541-4135.
Dra. Giraldez is a psychologist who previously ran a school for neurologically impaired children (closed because of lack of support). She continues to work in private practice. Tel. 687-1750.
Emma Domínguez is a psychologist with a post-graduate degree from the American University in Washington D.C. who works with children with learning difficulties. Tel. 689-0322.
Many schools offer “homework clubs” and some teachers will provide group tutoring outside of normal school hours. Investigate the possibilities in your home area. One example is Casos, located in Plaza Paraiso on Winston Churchill, Tel. 567-8261 and 541-8979. These programs are not specifically designed for children with special needs, but provide extra help at a more reasonable price than private tutoring.
The Asociación Cristiana de Jovenes, Inc. (YMCA), Mercedes No. 501, Tel. 688-7198 and 688-1507, offers speech and play therapy groups.
Are there any other resources?
There are numerous associations, such as the Asociación Dominicana de Sindrome de Down (Dominican Down’s Syndrome Association), 563-8594 and the Asociación Pro Bienestar del Ciego (Association for the Well-Being of the Blind), 598-3154.
Disesa is a store on the corner of Abraham Lincoln and Pedro Henríquez Ureña which offers a wide variety of educational supplies and materials, many of which are in English. Tel. 565-4554.
Fe y Luz is an organization which organizes inter-parochial communities for young people with mental handicaps. The groups meet every other week or once a month for social activities; there are also regular parent meetings and occasional workshops. One mother said that this program had completely changed her child, who now has lots of friends and accepts herself as a person like any other. Fanny Tejada de Guzmán is the organizer of one of the parochial groups, and will be happy to direct inquirers to their local gathering. Tel. 566-7883.
The Club de los Sordo-Mudos (Deaf-mute People’s Club) has social events every Sunday. For more information, call 689-6830.
The Special Olympics, a sports program for mentally retarded children and adults, has a branch here. Tel. 567-0465 or 541-2591.
What else should I keep in mind?
As in any country, you will need to be involved in your child’s education and treatment. Make sure that school is not turning into a place for the child to just “have a good time,” without making significant progress. Maintain regular communication with the professionals working with your child. They may discover new abilities—or you may be able to better inform them as to your child’s capabilities. (In another country, one parent was told that her child was not yet ready to learn the alphabet. He had already known it for years.)
Encourage any professional working with your child to visit the classroom or even your home. Children respond very differently to other environments, so such visits may make the clinical picture more clear.