President David Granger: Please be seated, thank you. Honourable Minister of Public Health, Ms. Volda Lawrence; Colonel Randy Storm, Chairman of the Board of Directors; Ms. [Cynthia] Massey, Rehabilitation Officer and other members of the board and centre; Members of the Diplomatic Corps; Dr. Adu-Krow, Country Representative of PAHO/WHO; members of the religious organisations; children; parents; staff members; invitees; members of the media:
I am very happy to be here this morning to join you in celebrating the 50th anniversary of this centre and I am happy to learn that both Janice and Cynthia were here since they were ten years old. [Laughter.]
This centre is a very important part of our history because you recall that last year we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of national independence and it is significant that today, just a few months later we’re celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of this centre. For those of us, Janice, Cynthia and myself who were alive in that time barely a few months old as it was, independence promised us a good life. We all felt then that everything we ever wanted or needed would come to us with independence.
I mustn’t forget my brother John here, who at that time I think was able to witness independence with us, but the most important thing we thought about independence is that we would have for the first time equality of opportunity, because the British Guiana that we grew up in was not an equal place, and many persons, even though they did well in secondary school, could not get jobs in some banks and some business places in this country. We could not go to certain clubs, we could not join certain sporting organisations and in fact it was only on the approach to independence that there was a programme called “Guyanization”, that for the first time Guyanese were treated as equal.
I remember in the public service the first attempt at a strike was because a Guyanese had advanced to the level of assistant postmaster general and when he was about to be appointed the government of the day decided to bring somebody from England, and I think people became irate because the Guyanese was perfectly qualified but he was about to be treated as less than equal. So for me, and I think for many others in our generation, independence was the same as equality, that for the first time Guyanese would be able to have a government of their choice and be treated as equal in their own country and that has been a constant theme in our political life; in our social life, over the last 50 years.
The fact that we had to create the first secondary school in the hinterland at St. Ignatius; the fact that only two weeks ago we could have the first female Senior Council in the history of Guyana means that we constantly have to remind ourselves that we are a very unequal society and we have to take an extra step to bring about equality.
We cannot be equal when many people pursuetheir selfish interest and many others because of some disability, because of poverty, because of illiteracy or maybe because of lack of opportunity, are left behind. And it is my view that the Ptolemy Reid Rehabilitation Centre embodied that spirit, that desire to prove that we Guyanese, if we are given equality of opportunity, could not only make a better nation but we can have better households, better families and better lives for all of our citizens.
One of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen occurred several years ago as I was going to Camp Ayanganna. It was about half past three on a bright sunny afternoon and there were about a dozen children from the David Rose school and they were perfectly silent because, as you know, the David Rose School was for special students but they were all smiling, they were all laughing, they were all happy and they were just communicating to each other with their hands and of course with their faces and for the first time I felt like an outsider; I didn’t know what was going on.
They knew what was going on; they were communicating with each other and they were happy about it. But apart from the fact that they were silent, nothing was wrong with their ability to communicate with each other and their ability to have fun at half past three on a Tuesday afternoon and there was I, clueless, and it made me think that if we gave each Guyanese child the opportunity to access education; if we gave every Guyanese child the opportunity to be employed, if we gave every Guyanese child the opportunity to be empowered to raise his or her voice, this would be a much happier place and I brought along some buttons, which you might see some children wearing already.
It is not for big people; it’s marked “Cooperative Republic of Guyana – Every Child in School” and it has got four symbols: symbolizing science, technology, engineering and mathematics and I would like it to be a reminder to the children themselves that given the opportunity they could master any field of academia if they are given the opportunity and if centres like the Ptolemy Reid Rehabilitation Centre and the David Rose School could be equipped to provide the resources and the materials and the infrastructure for them to have that opportunity.
So for me, my visit here and my brief remarks are all about opportunity. As you have heard already from Ms. Massey; British Guiana suffered from two severe polio epidemics in the immediate pre-independence period. In all, about 485 persons were infected with the disease. The disease affected mostly young people from Region Three, Essequibo Islands-West Demerara; Region Four, where we are now, Demerara-Mahaica and Georgetown; Region Six, East Berbice-Corentyne; Region Ten, Upper Demerara-Berbice. The majority of persons affected came from the coastland but four out of every five were children; at that time as Ms. Massey explained, it became necessary to provide rehabilitative therapy and of course, as a result of support from other countries we were able to overcome not only the epidemic but in fact the threat of polio to the country as a whole.
We are now in a situation in which unfortunately some children still suffer from abandonment because maybe parents are not capable or they may suffer from some other disability themselves which prevents them from taking care of their children. Some of them may feel it’s a burden to take care of their children. I am aware of that problem and I think there are other organisations – the Red Cross, which caters for abandonment, but sometimes even if children are not physically challenged, parents may tend to abandon their children and I believe here in this centre some persons who come here for treatment have become permanent occupants, permanent residents; whatever the reason, the State cannot close its eyes to its responsibility.
This centre provides services – unique services – to children and to persons who are challenged. It offers services to those with autism, hearing impairment; it also provides prosthetic limbs to those who require such services and as you have heard from Colonel Storm the centres work in producing prosthetic limbs has given many persons a second lease on life allowing them to live a normal life and to enter into gainful employment or activity.
So I would like to congratulate the Ptolemy Reid Rehabilitation Centre today. I would like to wish, on behalf of the Guyanese people, that this centre would continue to do the good work which it set out to do half a century ago. I would like to emphasise first, that in terms of education, we will continue to support this centre to enable children with challenges to equip themselves with the quality of education that will take them to the second level and that is the level of employment; and we can have centres where they can use their brains, where they can get computers, where they can have tools and utensils to enable them to produce works of art, produce artefacts which of course can help not only to keep them employed but it could eventually make them not only productive but prosperous. And we will encourage too, that we go yet a step further so that those children be empowered to participate fully in the City Council so when matters of parking meters come up, they can vote saying, I come from this constituency and you are not putting a parking meter there.
But we have to empower everyone so that they can raise their voices. I am disturbed too when you come to a sidewalk or a pavement and there is no pedestrian crossing – how are you going to get to the other side? Or even if there is a pedestrian crossing there is a gutter and there is no way for you to get across that gutter; or you go to buildings and there are no ramps.
So, it is for people like the staff of this centre and of course, the students here, to raise their voices to demand that there are changes; that changes can be made to our infrastructure; to our ministries and schools; to our public institutions – police stations, so that they can be accommodated.
So I would like to leave these thoughts with you. I would like to thank you for the sterling service that you provided over the last half century and I would like to commit the Government of Guyana to helping you more meaningfully. It is vulgar to mention figures at such a quiet ceremony, but I am sure if Colonel Storm communicated to me in a language that we both know better there will be more State funds coming to support this institution.
Congratulations and may God bless you!