They are different, not less. They are special not in their conditions, but in their own persons. They are persons first.
These ideas are quite what the members of the Ateneo Special Education Society (SPEED) would preach out. After all, SPEED is a community built on the mission of raising awareness, being in solidarity with and, ultimately, responding to the needs of the Persons with Special Needs (PWSNs). It is not just mere initiative or passion that drives the members of this community; rather, every Speple (SPEED member) unites under one advocacy.
And SPEED isn’t afraid to proclaim it across the LS community—for in every booth that dotted the school’s landscape represented an attempt at heralding this advocacy. Many projects concurrently happening during the week-long event that lasted this October 10-14 would find their own success at creating an atmosphere of understanding and solidarity. In this, many efforts stood out; the Spectrum booth was responsible for selling merchandise adherent to the cause, while the Speak Out! booth allowed different students to pledge for the PWSN. Whether they were grand or not hardly mattered; all these efforts were made to do SPEED’s mission, and would ultimately unite its members under this same advocacy that gave us the name of our organization.
“Advocacy” can’t help but seem to stick as a vague term, let loose to justify SPEED’s initiatives. The truth couldn’t be farther, and SPEED made sure to make that clear. Thus, the annual SPEED Week Advocacy Talks were held. Two talks were held, but it was the second one that struck me the most.
The 2nd Talk was titled School Life of a PSWN. From the title itself, one can guess that the talk gets a lot more experiential. The project takes it a step further: it invited three speakers whose lives are attributed much to responding to the lives of Persons with Special Needs.
A Different Kind of Thinking
The first speaker offers a special perspective—that of a PWSN himself. Thus, the talk began with Mr. Robin Lee, a graduate from the Ateneo de Manila University who is now an Education Consultant and author of A Life from an Audio Living Book. Throughout his sharing, he recounts his experience in dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome, and how it didn’t stop him from getting his two degrees.
Mr. Lee successfully paints a clear picture of what it’s like to have Asperger’s Syndrome. He started his talk by showing a dated clip from the Arthur television series that quite encapsulated the experience of such a condition. He didn’t waste time, going further into the topic by describing not only its medical background, but also the symptoms that come with having Asperger’s, and further stressing that it is a developmental disorder that hampers social interaction as well as nonverbal communication. This, he knows all too well. For his early education, Mr. Lee enrolled in a progressive school that adhered to the theory of Multiple Intelligence, which was rather inclusive to his condition. He recounts that having to transfer to Ateneo, a largely traditional school, was a constant challenge. He barely made it after extending to five years, as he explains that it was the way he was treated personally that made it so hard to go through his college life.
As the audience listened to his insights about sensitivity and understanding, Robin never failed to emphasize that people with Asperger’s indeed desire to be with society; they just have a harder time expressing it. Robin stresses that the mind of a person with Asperger’s simply works differently, resulting in misunderstandings that they have to experience causing hurdles to their personal and educational formation. With that thought in mind, Robin further explained his own advocacy: To change the traditional systems of education, transforming it into a more inclusive and appropriate program for those with special needs.
My Vision for You
The second speaker was Mr. Leo Lee, whose familial understanding of PWSN stems from his experience with raising a child born without sight. Mr. Leo Lee is a father of two children: a daughter currently studying in the Ateneo de Manila University and is a member of SPEED, and a son that was born with Retinopathy of Prematurity, a condition involving the loss of eyesight due to premature delivery.
Starting his talk with a strong emotional tone, Mr. Leo told the audience about the conditions of his son JC’s birth. He recounts preparing well for raising his son, only to find out that he was to be born prematurely. He was keen on describing JCs lightweight state, passing around to the audience a sack of rice specifically weighed to simulate the feeling of carrying his son. He then recalls desperately trying to restore his son’s eyesight, seeking out surgical help from doctors. Ultimately failing, he starts the hard road to acceptance, even once admitting to the audience that he lost complete hope for his child’s future. He was frank about his message, however: Nothing could have prepared them for JC’s upbringing. And yet, their entire journey was never quite about JC’s blindness, but by the love their family shared despite his condition.
Later on, he narrated his desire for his child—that JC grows just like any other boy. He made sure that this is reflected in his parenting. He made sure to not allow JC to use his disability as an excuse to have it easy; setting the bar high for discipline. Mr. Leo justifies this by giving his own vision for his child— that JC will someday become completely independent. Ending his talk in a similar way, Mr. Leo also stresses a desire to respond to the lack of Special Education in society. He concludes by quoting Hellen Keller, a prominent figure and a successful recipient of Special Education, appropriately reflecting his perspective on the life of the PWSN.
“The best things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart” (Keller).
Living With Bennika
Talking third was Mr. Benjhoe Emperado, a recent graduate of the Ateneo de Manila University, and is now a student at the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health (ASMPH). He has three other siblings, the youngest of which is Bennika, a young grade school student diagnosed with Down Syndrome.
He chose to start with the biological basis of Down Syndrome as well as its symptoms, such as stunted growth and characteristic facial features. He then talks about his own experience of having a sibling with Down Syndrome, beginning with a fateful day in 1996, when he found out that he’s expecting a sibling that was a bit special. Much of his narration involves dealing with his sister’s education. For the most part, she was enrolled both in a private and a public institution; each institution having its pros and cons with taking care of Bennika.
Benjhoe expounded on the emotional difficulties he and the rest of his family had to undergo. He goes on to explain that many children like Bennika are inappropriately identified and underestimated, and that he shared in the pain brought about by that scrutiny. He proceeded by stressing out that Down Syndrome is completely random and incurable, but he shows that he is optimistic about the future. He goes on to affirm his love for Bennika, and expressed the desire to have responded to her needs earlier in her development. He expounds on his sister’s development, explaining that poverty, as well as the great lack of facilities that can accommodate PWSNs, are still great obstacles on the spread of Special Education that is crucial for people like his sister. He concludes that one important thing that PWSNs need is simply empowerment, and a society that will make sure they reach their potential.
A Difference for the Different
Gripping and unique as they are, these three talks reveal to us a truth that has always lived in our advocacy—that PWSNs are persons first. In that regard, the talk did its duty and it has done it well. Gripping an audience that filled out half of the Leong Hall Auditorium, the speakers were more than just informative; they were rather experiential and ultimately effective. After all, nothing could replace the insights born out of a genuine understanding and care. With that in mind, the SPEED Advocacy talks delivered, thanks to the unique experiences of three individuals and how they chose to respond to the special needs of others.
They can’t just take all the credit, though. After all, behind these talks are a staunch group of individuals who chose to devote their passion (and much of their free time) to create an appropriate avenue to preach our own advocacy. I’ve had the opportunity of working Apples Daleon, project head and coordinator for the Advocacy Talks, serving as one of the ushers under her. It was to this project head that I owed my impression of the passionate Speple, as working with her core team allowed me to see the advocacy beyond proclamation—through concrete action.
I share my hope with that of every other Speple: That these people would go beyond awareness of our advocacy. That someday, people would choose to devote themselves to make a difference for the different in their own way. After going to the Advocacy Talk, I didn’t just learn to be more aware and disturbed, I realized that SPEED’s advocacy calls me to do something more.
Because building an inclusive, understanding, and ultimately responsible society, one step at a time—this is what SPEED truly advocates for.
Written by Andre Guevara
The 2nd SPEED Advocacy Talk was held last October 12, 2016, at the Leong Hall. It had a running time of 2 hours, starting from 5:00 and ending at 7:00. The talk was not only opened for SPEED members, but for freshmen as well, being included in the list of electives available to the InTACT program.