Suzanne Williams: Lessons in Liberty
TO her students, she is Auntie Suzy, but for those in the education sector, Suzanne Williams is the woman who has successfully managed to create a balanced environment for special needs children by removing the barriers that would make them feel different.
Williams is the founder of Liberty Academy, an independent institution which started in 1994 to accommodate both special needs and highly functional children. Due to her tremendous success in creating that inclusive environment for her students, she was recently given the Excellence in Special Education award by the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities during the organisation's Inaugural Disability Awards Gala recently.
"I grew up in a family where there were people with special needs and they were included in all aspects of family life. So I knew that inclusion was something that could happen easily if everyone was a part of it," she said.
"When you go into our classrooms, you don't know who is who, unless your child has a physical disability," the educator told All Woman.
Williams' inclusive nature was very evident long before Liberty. In 1990 when she took time away from work to homeschool her children, she found herself taking in other children from her Irish Town community to teach as well. The numbers grew quickly to the point where the mother of four had to start the Harmony Preparatory School at her house. As the name suggests, students were encouraged to learn in a peaceful environment with the full support of parents and community members, who, among other things, offered financial assistance.
"What we were able to do was to lay a foundation. These were the first generation in their families who were now able to pass the Common Entrance Examination at the time, so it meant a change in the lives of many families," she noted.
"Ultimately what we wanted to do was to lift the standard of education in the community," she said
Prior to starting Harmony, Williams had worked at the Jamaica Association for the Deaf for several years in various capacities. It was there that her interest in special education was sparked.
"I worked as a research assistant I assisted in establishing some unit classes for the deaf I did some teaching and I did administration, so I got a well-rounded exposure to special education there," she said.
After three years of working at the institution, Williams was given a Commonwealth scholarship for Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Canada, where she pursued her master's degree. It was about one year after returning home from her studies that Williams decided to focus on educating her children, and eventually started Harmony.
After just five years, Harmony started to outgrow the community and so Williams partnered with Swallowfield Chapel to move to Kingston and start Liberty Academy. Harmony Preparatory was eventually taken over by new management as the educator turned her focus to the new school. Because the classroom sizes were smaller at this new institution, it didn't take long for the educator to realise that some of her children were living with various types of disabilities.
"We found that a lot of the children that came to us had some special learning needs. I am a trained special educator, so I was able to pick this up quickly and we believed that the best thing to do was to adapt our programme to the needs of the children who were coming to us and developed what was called an inclusive programme," she said.
Approximately 33 per cent of the 197 students at Liberty Academy are living with special needs. However, both special needs and highly functional students co-mingle and with the barriers to education lifted, everyone is encouraged to reach their fullest potential.
"What we do is that we have devised a system of inclusion. Our children who are more severely afflicted, we have small classes for them, but those who have mild to moderate disabilities, we actually integrate them into the mainstream classrooms and we have support for those children in the classrooms," explained the educator.
"What we find is that because they are trying to normalise as much as possible, they start striving for even higher goals and our non-special needs children develop a better sense of citizenship and become a lot more tolerant of those that have special needs and become more helpful to them," she said.
Williams said her ultimate aim is to have Liberty Academy become a model school for special education in the Caribbean. Most of her days are spent getting the school closer to that goal.
"What we are trying to do here is to lift the barriers and allow the children to do the best that they can do," she said.