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In unity lies strength

Pic: Eyleen Gomez

By Joe Brugada
The recent upsurge of public demonstrations by the joint forces of Special Needs Action Group and Gibraltar Disability groups has been a breath of fresh air in a community which has been driven to destruction by the inaction and lack of real progress in the field of diagnosis, infrastructure and professional support for the less fortunate disabled members of our community for decades.

The solution to all this could be ‘encouraged’ by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Disabled People being enshrined, in full, in Gibraltar law. This is the mission of the newly formed Disability Rights Federation and is at long last, the culmination of a new young, better-informed generation of parents willing to air their frustrations in public, as one. The first two of a series of programmes being broadcast on GBC TV titled “6 Calls” for the first time shows mothers and fathers opening their tortured hearts to describe the calvary that having a disabled child and the struggle to find and secure the necessary, correct advise, support, care and education not just for the child but for themselves, siblings and wider family represents
It is resignedly referred to as ‘the journey’ a humble euphemism for a struggle against the all odds.

The first two episodes were broadcast to date on Wednesday 8th and 15th September on GBC TV and I urge everyone to watch these excellent programmes, when repeated, because this is what is happening in our beloved Gibraltar. My heart goes out to all those ‘brave’ parents baring their souls to the world in a concerted effort to bring about real change and secure justice for the often discriminated and humiliated disabled members of the community in this much vaunted rich, tolerant, multi-racial community, which may be so, but as for disability, inclusive it’s not!

You may by now be thinking, “hey Joe you’re getting a bit hot under the collar”; well yes, you see, in those parents I see my wife and myself at the start of ‘our journey’ in December 1972 on the morning of the day before Christmas Eve. On that ignominious day I witnessed the breech birth of our beloved baby daughter Jacqueline who was starved of oxygen causing the destruction of all the hair cells in her cochleae ears. This information was not recorded in her medical files, but was subsequently ‘diagnosed’ by UK experts at King’s Cross Nuffield Centre, London as the cause of her profound Deafness.

And our journey began in earnest. Without any assistance from the ‘establishment’ at the time, financial or otherwise, we emigrated seeking help, support, medical and educational facilities, most of which did not exist in Gibraltar then, and frankly most still don’t; oh yes, and a job. She has since been profoundly, bilaterally deaf and dependant on British Sign Language as she was brought up in UK in Specialist School Units in the initial stages and in a Boarding School for the Deaf in Brighton from the age of twelve, coming home with her family every week-end, a four hour round trip, over 150 miles, on a good day and seven to nine hours in adverse traffic and weather conditions. This brought her into contact with the UK Deaf community and Deaf culture. Something sadly lacking in Gibraltar something the community is very reluctant to become part of.

On our lonesome then we left for UK in 1975, ‘via Tangier ferry and then on overland by car - the Frontier was closed you may recall - where we supported her until she completed her education, qualified as Nursery Nurse in a Nottingham College, married a Deaf peer, Phillip, and settled down in Derby, which houses the Royal Derby School for the Deaf, and has the largest proportion of Deaf in their community.
I then took slightly early retirement from Safeway Head Office, (after 27 years) and returned to Gibraltar. So Joe, “was this the end of your journey?” you ask. Not on your nelly, my retirement was short lived.

Unsurprisingly the call of the Rock is also ‘heard’ by deaf and disabled people! Senci and I retired to Gib in 1999. Within ten years of a heart wrenching farewell to Jacqueline, Phillip and the children we were back at the Gibraltar air terminal welcoming them back home. And without goIng into another litany of by, the now well known lack of adequate facilities, infrastructure and support, ‘the journey’ began all over again. This time thirty seven years on, in our Gibraltar.

So what’s new? Not much, though there are lots of ‘specialist’ teams involved in window dressing, generally ignoring the advise and needs of those who have and still live the experience of stigma, taboos, ignorance and constant humiliation in a hearing dominated world, more concerned with not sticking their heads above the parapet yet hijacking all the efforts of individuals and charities, claiming them as own initiatives. “Am I bitter? Wouldn’t you be?”. More often as not they are watered down and not followed through in practice. Note the determination of the recent GHITA-led / RGP initiative and prompt follow through by the setting up of a Deaf Awareness Liaison Officers section led by PC Paul Gache. A real example of how to respond to the Community’s Special Needs. May their example sow the seed of trust and respect between Law Enforcement and the Disabled members of our community.

Our journey will never end until the Rights for the Disabled are protected in local legislation. We need to see a National Strategy on Disabilities and for ‘all Schools’ to participate in a Disability Awareness programme to encourage an inclusive society from the early years. To date we find local Deaf and Hard of Hearing children are not introduced to British Sign Language and institutionally only exposed to the English language via the Sign assisted Makaton which though a useful learning tool, but not a language, and like the ‘times tables’, a useful means to an end.

This goes, against not just their Human Rights, but also World Health Organisation guidelines; the WHO acknowledges the important role of Sign languages for communication with a Deaf and Hard of Hearing person and it’s positive impact on mental health and not least their self-esteem. In education Gibraltarian Deaf/hard of Hearing children need the right support, and this can only be brought about with the formal introduction of Qualified BSL Teacher for the Deaf and the support of a fluent BSL teaching assistant. Trials could be introduced in the latter category, with local fluent BSL availability which could double up as personal interpreter / translator to BSL users in some of their more crucial times of communication needs.

Only a change in mindset will ever bring about inclusivity, in passing GBC TV could play a lead role in this. But let’s concentrate energies on the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People being enshrined in Gibraltar Law, the rest may well flow from it but not, I fear, without further struggles.

It has only at the end of Aug 2021 come to light that a Government Special Needs and Disability Coordination & Liaison Office has been announced. A National Disability Strategy was presented by a small team of two Govt representatives, tasked with weekly meetings of representatives from Disability Associations, Special Needs Assoc., stakeholder working parties, clinic, statistics office, public surveys and heads of departments, there are 70 Govt Depts to liaise (and I presume ‘educate’?)

All this before we get to the stage of reviewing the Disability Act and enshrining the UN Convention fully into the Gibraltar DA. It is a 15 year plan! My family, with GHITA, have been lobbying, fighting and providing loads of information and statistics for provision of resident BSL signing interpreters for the Invisible Disability of Deafness, for the last ten years. I sincerely hope for our sake and all you other stakeholders and parents that they don’t really mean take another 15 years to come up with initiatives and facilities you have all been fighting for not just 10, but in many cases the last 30 years. Hope to God I’m wrong but I’m certainly not optimistic.

The problem with some ‘professionals’ is they don’t listen; they seem to know all the answers before you’ve even asked the question. Their solutions are often misguided and ineffective.
To the new Federation I urge, lobby together, challenge, persevere and God speed.

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