Above: Candice Baptiste photographed in Mayaro. Make up by Shenelle Escayg, photography by Mark Lyndersay.
My name is Candice Baptiste and I am deaf. I spent my early childhood in the beautiful rural village of Mayaro. I was born Deaf but my family never treated me differently.
In fact, I grew up in a loving and supportive home where we found a way to communicate in spite of my deafness. My education journey started with kindergarten in Mayaro and then preschool in Rio Claro where there was a mix of children with and without disabilities. Eventually, my mother started searching for a primary school that would accept me, but there were none in my area.
During this time, some of the foundations I needed to effectively communicate were already lost.
My mother found out about the Cascade School for the Deaf and I was enrolled there in 2000. I was already 8. On my first day there, I saw and felt a difference. I was at a new place and alone. Within a couple of hours some deaf children befriended me and I began my journey with my main form of communication – Sign Language.
The first thing I learned was to spell my name and I received a name sign – this is a Sign Code given to any person who is a part of the Deaf community. It is just as important as your real name, as it uses something special about you to identify you. My name sign is the letter C at my right eye.
Due to the distance away from home, I stayed at the Dormitory in the Cascade School. This meant five days in school and weekends with my family at Mayaro. I missed my mom everyday. After two and a half years at Cascade, I moved on to Belmont Primary School. This was a different experience, because I was now in school with hearing children again, after getting accustomed to a deaf only school.
This time however, I had better communication skills and friends to sign. My teachers Ms. Gittens, Ms. Brown and Ms. Brewster were all supportive and I quickly settled in.
When I wrote the SEA exam in 2007, I passed for South East Port of Spain Secondary. This school also accepts Deaf students and had an interpreter. However, there was one problem, I was now out of Cascade School and my new school was far away from Mayaro.
Instead, my parents decided to send me to the National Centre for Persons with Disabilities in San Fernando, which is closer to Mayaro. The bus schedule required me to be up by 4 am to catch the bus at 5 am. I would then get home at 7 pm which always left me tired.
NCPD was different to the Cascade School for the Deaf because there were children with different types of disabilities enrolled there. This skills training school prepared you for a job. I was enrolled in Office Administration and stayed for two and a half years.
Then I became sick and ended up in the hospital. I lost three months of school and even though I started to receive Social Welfare Assistance, I did not feel safe to travel alone. Soon after, I stopped going to NCPD and did not receive my NEC Certificate.
I thought that since I had welfare, there was no rush to learn a new skill but I realised the grant was not enough. Before long, I enrolled in YTEPP to learn how to make preservatives, earned a certificate and felt proud of myself. I had a skill! I wanted to go out and get a job so I could make my own money.
After discussing this with my mom, I realised that if I got a job, I would lose my grant. That was a risk, if I got fired from the job, I would have no money. It is hard to get the grant again if it is cut. I told my mom that the welfare was not enough and I needed more money to build a future for myself. However, it is also hard for the Deaf to secure well paying jobs because of limited educational opportunities which leads to limited academic qualifications and my mom was not allowing me to take the risk.
I wanted to use my certificate to work but this caused a lot of quarrels between my mom and I. I kept telling her it was not fair that other people worked and I stayed home. She then decided to start calling places that would employ Deaf adults.
At the age of 23, I got a job with JTA Supermarket. There are a lot of deaf persons who work at their three branches. The distance was very far so I moved in with my boyfriend who lived in San Fernando. My parents were not very happy, but they understood. I was happy, I was working and travelling was not long and tiring.
I am now 27 and I want to learn more skills but Trinidad and Tobago does not have enough interpreters to assist everyone. Most of our interpreters have other jobs and families, so it is hard for them to commit to assisting us all the time. I understand, but my community, especially those of us who just went to a Deaf School are suffering. We want to work, we want a better future. We are not satisfied with this grant and we want opportunities to be sufficiently financially independent.
I believe if there was a School for the Deaf closer to home or a Secondary School that accepted me in Mayaro, I would have done the CXC exams and that my life may have been different. Maybe I could have been a teacher or some other professional. We need access to inclusive education in rural areas because it costs a lot of money for our parents to send us elsewhere. There are Deaf persons whose parents do not have good jobs, so they get no education.
We appreciate that there are two schools for the Deaf but it is hard for children to be so far away from home. We only see our families for 2 days a week. No one thinks about how much we miss our families and the impact that has on us. We may spend up to seven or more years at a school for the Deaf. That is a lot of time to be without your family.
This is why our community is so close because we become our own family when we miss our parents and siblings. Our housemothers and teachers become our parents.
The Deaf community does not want to stay at home and not work. We have bills, dreams and want the same things that hearing people do.
We want to work, we want more opportunities for easier physical access to education and training so that we can get good jobs, maybe build our own businesses and not have to depend on a welfare cheque. This is not fair to us or our families. We are citizens and we deserve better.
Sponsors: Dale McLeod, Jacqueline Scott, Starlite Collection, Sacha Makeup, JB Fernandez Memorial Trust II, #TeamLegen