Candilla Berment-Harper photographed at the St James offices of the Special Olympics Committee. Make-up by Shenelle Escayg, photography by Mark Lyndersay.

Originally published in Express Woman, April 23, 2017

My name is Candilla Berment-Harper and I was called to service in a field, which was introduced to me by chance.  I was born into a loving family of four sisters and one brother, and spent my early childhood days in Fyzabad.  My dad was an Accountant and worked in the Oilfields, and my mother was a loved teacher at Fyzabad Intermediate School where she firmly believed that all pupils under her care deserved an equal opportunity at development. This was most evident in her tutelage of a child with Down Syndrome named Joe at our home.  Against all odds she was able to teach him to read, write and speak properly.

Although my background is in Human Resource Management, I decided to also gain Certificates in Child Psychology and Sign Language, and I am firmly convinced that this singular experience seeing my mother teaching Joe, inspired me to commit to helping persons with disabilities in our society.

In the mid 1980’s, I was asked by a friend to take his place on a Games Committee.  I agreed and became a volunteer with Special Olympics Trinidad & Tobago (SOTT). I have been with SOTT ever since, having gained experience in all aspects of the organization – from being a member on the Committee, to the Games Organizing Committee, to holding the position of National Director up to 2000, and now the Board Chair.

I then applied for and was selected for the position of Executive Director of Special Olympics Caribbean from 2002 to 2009, the first official Regional Special Olympics body to be opened in Trinidad & Tobago.

This office was a sub-division of Special Olympics International and was the body responsible for managing training, fund-raising, programme development, volunteers and organizing tournaments and competition among the twenty-three Special Olympics programmes in the region. Unfortunately due to lack of funding the office was closed in 2010.

Accordingly to Special Olympics International “The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.”

Emanating from the mission, the ultimate goal of Special Olympics is to help persons with intellectual disabilities participate as productive and respected members of society at large, by offering them a fair opportunity to develop and demonstrate their skills and talents through sports training and competition, and by increasing the public’s awareness of their capabilities and needs.

The Founding Principles support this goal by emphasizing that people with intellectual disabilities can enjoy, learn and benefit from participation in individual and team sports, underpinned by consistent training and by competition opportunities for all levels of ability.

According to the Principles, Special Olympics must transcend all boundaries of race, gender, religion, national origin, geography, and political philosophy.  They also state that every person with an intellectual disability should have the opportunity to participate and be challenged to achieve their full potential, with the focus at community level to reach the greatest number of athletes, strengthen their families and create an environment of equality, respect and acceptance.

Working in the region I recognized that persons with special needs are still being marginalized and ill treated in all areas of society and it is for ordinary citizens like you and I and Corporate Trinidad and Tobago to ensure that this does not continue.

SOTT has been able to ensure for the past thirty-three years, that our citizens with special needs are exposed not only to Sports for which they have competed locally and abroad at numerous games, bringing home countless medals, but they have been taught to speak for themselves in public forums, or at meetings.  Our more adult athletes are now trained Coaches and some of them compete alongside and within regular teams in Basketball, Football, Volleyball, Swimming, etc.  We also encourage through the Healthy Athlete programmes that their health needs are taken care of.

Over time we have seen an increase in the country’s awareness of the needs and capacities of persons with special needs, even though fund-raising and public support still holds its challenges.

In my travels with Special Olympics throughout the world I have been in contact with and seen all types of persons with special needs achieve and overcome obstacles the ordinary person will be afraid of attempting.

I would like to see persons in our country embrace all persons with special needs.  We need to ensure all offices and public places, be it government or corporate are outfitted with ramps for wheelchair access.  That signage in the form of sign language and braille be erected for the hearing impaired and visually impaired persons.  Persons with Special needs are people too and should be hired in all workplaces, not as a “token employee” but an employee with the privileges and benefits of all other employees.

This I know is my call to service, one I have enjoyed immensely and has given me a different perspective on life. It has changed the way I look at things and has shown me that life is not about material things, but about enabling those who deserve a place in this world too.

As Board Chair of SOTT we will continue to introduce new programmes for our persons with special needs throughout Trinidad and Tobago so they too can live a full life no matter their disability.

I look forward to our present Government and Corporate bodies taking a more proactive and collaborative approach with Civil Society to ensure the disabled in our society are well taken care of.

The production of the Footsoldiers segment of the Lioness Project series, highlighting the experiences of 12 workers in the disability field, is supported by the Cause an Effect Organisation, the Massy Foundation and A Very Special Disabilities Forum.