Jacqui Leotaud photographed in The Sensory Room of Immortelle House in St Anns. Make-up by Shenelle Escayg, photography by Mark Lyndersay.

Originally published in the Sunday Express Woman Magazine on October 09, 2016.

I am Jacqui, mother of Racquel, Michelle, Giselle and John. I have been very blessed with four beautiful, caring children and of course my husband, who has supported any and all of my crazy schemes.
Racquel, my eldest, was born with a disability. She has a cognitive delay. She does not read nor write, does not know most of her colours nor numbers. Her fine motor is not good, which means she has trouble with activities needing intricate hand/finger use.

Racquel, however, is extremely sensitive, knows when anyone around her is feeling unwell and is very sympathetic. She is concerned if you have a plaster or bandage, she worries that it is hurting. Racquel is a very loving person. She loves unconditionally!  Few people do that!

When Racquel was a baby I did not realize that she was not meeting her milestones. When I took her for her three month check up I told the doctor that she was not turning over, he seemed unconcerned and so was I…the thought however, was in the back of my head.

When I thought it was time for her to creep and she was not creeping, I put her on the floor and taught her to creep. I would play all sorts of stimulation games and teach her to make noises, clap and just about anything I thought of. Years later I realized I was actually running an early stimulation programme! Racquel walked when she was two years old so I relaxed a little.

Then I had my second daughter, Michelle, who did everything earlier than the norm. By this time, I could no longer pretend I did not know: Racquel had a problem. I took her to Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, where she was diagnosed with moderate mental retardation.  My really good friend asked me if I would want to keep her or put her in a home.  I remember, the question floored me. Keep her?  Put her in a home? This was a choice? NOT FOR ME.  She was my child and I loved her. She was and still is – Racquel.

Having Racquel changed me but it took me a few years to realize this. I began accepting people for who they were. My children always tell me, that if someone is nice to Racquel, I immediately like them. In my mind, it says something about someone’s character, if they go out of their way to be nice and acknowledge a person with a disability, to treat them with respect. Thirty years ago that was not the norm. We have come a long way.

When I was asked to “hold on” as Principal at the Immortelle over twenty-five years ago, I said yes.  I knew that if someone did not take it over, it was going to close down. This is where Racquel and sixteen other kids went to school. I had worked off and on in school administration over the years and had been an Administrator at a Primary School for about a year. So I figured that I would hold on for a while until a real Principal came along…

I went back to school to at least get a paper to say that I knew what I was doing. I have an Associates degree in Education, with a Certificate in Special Education. Running the Immortelle was a whole new experience. I really enjoyed it. The students were the biggest draw. They were always so happy, content with themselves and enjoying life!

I discovered that I was a good teacher and I certainly enjoyed being the Arts and Crafts, and Social Studies teacher for a few years. My strength or my preference was the administration and the developing of new and innovative programmes to help all the students with as little resources as we had.

Jacqui Leotaud photographed in The Sensory Room of Immortelle House in St Anns. Make-up by Shenelle Escayg, photography by Mark Lyndersay.

Jacqui Leotaud photographed in The Sensory Room of Immortelle House in St Anns. Make-up by Shenelle Escayg, photography by Mark Lyndersay.

I enjoyed introducing new programmes – my motto was “If we are not going forward we are moving backwards.”  I started a computer programme, a partnership with the University of Toronto with OT; partnership with Seton Hall University with our August vacation Camp; a music programme with UTT and UWI Students and a Vocational Training Center, where the students produce gift bags and cookies for sale.

As the school grew, my interest expanded to ‘All persons with disabilities!”  I am the Secretary of the Private Special Schools Association of Trinidad & Tobago. This organisation was formed to liaise with the Ministry when we were negotiating Ministry subsidies.

I joined Consortium of Disability Organisations ten years ago and I am now the President. This organisation was started by the Rotary club to offer training to organisations catering to persons with disabilities. Over the years it has changed to become the umbrella organisation for all disability organisations.

Its focus now is finding ways to have the UN Convention on Persons with Disabilities made into laws, after the Government ratified the Convention last year. Now that I am close to retirement, my aim is to set up a facility where our older students can work and those who need it, can live in an assisted center.

I know that if it wasn’t for Racquel, I would never have worked at the Immortelle. I would never have discovered my passion for fighting for those who are being taken advantage of. I would never have been in a position to do something about it.

All life experience changes you but I think that being the mother of a child with a disability, not only the disabilities we can see, stamps you as different, gives you an entirely different personality. They are our children embrace them. There is nothing wrong with them, they are just a little different from the norm. And what’s wrong with that?

The production of the Lioness series, highlighting the experiences of 12 mothers, is supported by Cause an Effect, Angostura Limited, First Citizens Bank and A Very Special Disabilities Forum.