Living and Leading with Confidence
Die in your arms
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Kenneth Suratt was born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad in 1968 with congenital cataracts. As a child, he had low vision. Attending school in the 1960’s, he devised a strategy that allowed him to capture what was written by the teachers on the chalk board. He sat really close to the front of the class and whatever he could not see on the chalkboard, his friends would read it out to him. When he was eight years old, his teacher informed his parents about the severity of his condition and advised that his eyes should get tested. Kenneth did not think that was necessary because the only hindrance he perceived at that time was simply his inability to copy what was written on the chalkboard in class and, with his friends, he had found a way to make that work! However, his parents took him to the ophthalmologist and based on the extent of the low vision diagnosis, he was sent to the School for Blind Children on the island.
He was just eight years old when he was admitted to this institution that housed and taught children who were blind and had low vision. He describes this as one of the most traumatic experiences of his life, remembering quite vividly the day his mother dropped him off at the boarding school. While he was playing with his new-found friends, she quickly slipped away to lessen the trauma of the separation. Kenneth then saw his family only three times per year when school was on vacation. When he was 13 years old, as part of an integrated program to have children from the School for Blind Children included in main stream education, Kenneth started attending Queen’s Royal College high school. While there, at the age of 14, he completely lost his sight.
Kenneth remembers waking up one morning seeing a range of different colours at the corner of his eyes. Within one week, the colours looked ‘broken’. He was diagnosed with retinal detachment. Kenneth travelled to Miami and England hoping surgery could be performed to correct the situation, but nothing could be done so he returned to Trinidad, blind and emotionally broken. For a while, he pretended he was still able to see and continued interacting with his friends at the integrated high school as best he could, bumping into things as he went along. Used to him being of low vision, this was initially not startling to his friends, but they eventually realized that he was now totally blind. This realization that others now knew of his blindness sharply jolted him into his new reality. He could not cope, was scared to move around and the school had no one to counsel him – the best counselling he received was from his friends. He was not familiar with braille, as he previously had a system with his friends that allowed him to read/see sufficiently well with their help. He now had to readjust, learn braille and figure out how to live from then onwards as a blind person.
It was not an easy journey. Kenneth went through a period of depression as he attempted to adjust to the new life and navigate his way through the emotional and physical darkness. At that time, music was his only solace. Playing his guitar and writing songs through which he vocalized the raw emotional turmoil he was enduring, gave him short-lived comfort. Many sad songs were written during that period, but Kenneth was resilient. Time progressed and he finished high school, then enrolled at Trinidad’s College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts. He completed an Associate’s Degree in Business Administration and today is the Executive Officer of the Trinidad & Tobago Blind Welfare Association (TTBWA). He is currently pursuing a Human Resources degree.
Kenneth credits his love for music as the lifeline that helped him to reintegrate himself into society. In 1991 with five other blind persons, he formed a band and travelled around the island performing at weddings and other events. Visionary Sound was the first all-blind band in Trinidad & Tobago and their popularity quickly grew, with them becoming the must-haves at many social functions. The band has since broken up as the members got married and moved on but its positive impact remains.
Kenneth has and continues to be a vocal advocate. In 1994, he was awarded the National Youth Award for Special Education. He was an integral part of the team which in 2006, won the case at the Privy Council for the establishment of an Equal Opportunity Commission in Trinidad & Tobago. In 2020, his advocacy led to the amendment of the Copyright Act to make printed material accessible for the print-disabled. He also advocated for the Trinidad & Tobago currency to be changed from cotton to polymer notes so that tactile features can be added allowing persons who are blind to independently identify their money.
Kenneth believes that life for the blind in Trinidad and Tobago today is much easier than it was for him as a child – this he attributes to modern technology. He is heartened to see blind children are integrated into the regular school system and doing well, although improvements are needed in the way Math and Science are taught, especially now during Covid where online teaching/learning is used. The use of Braille is not widespread throughout Trinidad & Tobago, but now that it is in digital format and no longer bulky, Kenneth and the organization he leads are encouraging its use. They undertake the conversion of restaurant menus into braille, go to people’s homes to put tactile buttons on their appliances, teach them to use technology, how to navigate websites and also provide advice, as needed.
To date, Kenneth says, the Government of Trinidad & Tobago is the main employer of the blind. The private sector has not yet embraced the inclusive employment concept resulting in some blind persons turning to self-employment. Kenneth believes there is a lot to be done on the island including the built environment which needs to be made accessible as it is not easy for the blind to get around safely in their communities. Many obstacles exist and navigating the outdoors for a blind person presents numerous challenges. Stray dogs, uneven pavements, hanging branches etc., are all hazards for a cane user. There are no legislations in place to enforce compliance to building standards which poses a serious threat to the independence of the aging population and people with disabilities. TTBWA is therefore committed to continued advocacy, training the blind to advocate for themselves and working with government to implement the United Nations Charter on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) to build an all-inclusive Trinidad & Tobago.
TTBWA, under Kenneth’s leadership, offer these and other services at their four branches:
- Adjustment to Blindness
- Blindness Prevention
- Socialization Program
- Library Services
- Daily Living Skills
- Mobility & Orientation
- Sensitization & Awareness
- Music Program
- Communication Skills: ✓ braille classes ✓ computer classes
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Phone: 1-868- -624-4675
Email: [email protected]