Lillon Ryan-Dick photographed at her therapy space at the L.I.F.E. Centre in Petit Valley. Makeup by Shenelle Escayg, photograph by Mark Lyndersay

Originally published in Express Woman, July 02, 2017

I wish I can say that I always dreamt of becoming a teacher but that is not my truth. In an almost psychic way, my grandmother with whom I spent most of my life, always called me teacher Phyllo (since my mother migrated in search of a better life).

We often gathered to hear her recollection of an astounding resemblance that I bore to her teacher in the 1940’s. Not that classic and obedient like Teacher Phyllo, I seldom dreamt of my career as castles and princes; this used up MY ENTIRE RAM for thoughts.

In a deep spiritual way, I always felt grounded whenever I volunteered at the public homes for children that were challenged. While at Lady Hochoy Home, my passion grew consistently as I interacted with persons with special needs.

My teacher saw a patience in me that not even I was able to recognize, far less appreciate. All I knew was that spending time with these persons made a difference to me.
My second brother struggled with reading from an early age and I had to create augmentative ways to teach him.

All of me was consumed with selfless thoughts of others; their success, their needs, their wants, their dreams and not my own. Seemingly we were fused; nothing I could do could shake my compassion for my brother or persons with disabilities.

Out of secondary school I was twice rejected entry into university. At that time, I had a high metabolism but low sense of what career I would pursue. I stumbled upon an opportunity to do an August vacation gig with children with learning disabilities.

I stayed with that school and awesome group of students for ten (10) years. I quickly gained popularity among these students and their families because I connected with them in a real way; I had firsthand insight into living with someone who struggled to learn; especially with simple tasks which came naturally to others.

Professionally, like a moth to the flame, I often found myself tutoring children who were deemed “hard headed” and “dunce” and quickly stumbled into a post working with persons with learning disabilities. With the success of all my students, it became obvious at one point that my grandmother, in her infinite wisdom, was right! I was a teacher.

Soon teaching persons with learning disabilities wasn’t enough, I needed a greater challenge. In a bitter sweet way, working for a charitable organization can only take you as far as your resources; I had the hardest decision to make – leave my students and experiences behind.

An ad in the newspaper led me to two faithful parents who knew that they wanted something more for their children than what was available publicly or privately at that time. L.I.F.E. Centre in 1999 catered to both young and pre-teen students with varying needs. With a vision of an early intervention programme, these two parents opened their doors and hearts to other parents who found themselves in the same predicament – no school that fully catered to the complex needs of persons with autism. Eighteen years going strong, I am still here.

Working with persons with autism challenged my very being; the human side of me and my soul which felt completely disconnected from my flesh. These children who didn’t have a voice most certainly had a lot to say. Every day was a day of learning for me. L.I.F.E. Centre is different. The acronym Learning Is For Everyone has stood the test of time.

My interests and in-house skills continued to accelerate. I knew in my spirit that I needed to be in their space, share the same air and empathy for and with persons with developmental delays. I have taught persons with DS, Rett Syndrome and a little boy with Cri du Chat who at that time couldn’t walk.

Today I see a handsome young man, who can run and carry on an engaging conversation. Some parents who have enrolled their children at our school shared that professionals have diagnosed that their children won’t live beyond a certain age, talk or ever gain self-help skills. With the use of multi-sensory and research-based strategies, I can testify that they were proven wrong.

As teachers, we struggle daily to bridge the demands of the parents to the needs of our students and commit to a career that doesn’t match the remuneration package. Our job requires a special degree of training within local and foreign institutions through which I have been exposed. However, my discovery thus far is that there is no type of academic degree that truly qualifies anyone to ‘be with’ these persons, other than a degree of compassion, consistency and camaraderie.

Through regular telephone conversations and or face to face meetings with families, I hear the silent screams of shame, of continuous grief and glimmers of hope. At L.I.F.E. Centre we continue to expose our students to diverse experiences and places. Our teachers continue to educate persons at the malls, grocery stores and even restaurants. Our teachers are Trailblazers!

The lack of funding, adequate living facilities and education of parents cannot be compared to the unawareness by every day people, to understand that persons with autism and other neurological delays are people too. They deserve the same respect, social and community-based outlets at their disposal. The hardest job for me is getting people to change their mindset, according to Carol Dwetz, “it’s not us and them.”

I do believe that together we will all achieve our goals; the ones in us that are already formed and those that are still transforming. Through my current master’s programme in Special and Inclusive Education I want to contribute to making our society one that embraces everyone in spite of their differences, and not despite them.

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