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One play park ... hundreds of lives changed for the better

IT is a typical scene:

Left, Vislette Critchlow-Whyte's children, Tichina and Trivette, both attend the school at Ptolemy Reid Rehabilitation Centre. Above, villagers in traditional dress hold the Queen's Baton when the Commonwealth Games Baton Relay visited in early March - but although some of the Ptolemy Reid school's children took part, their pictures were not shown in  local news coverage, a hint of the discrimination against disabled people in Guyana
Left, Vislette Critchlow-Whyte's children, Tichina and Trivette, both attend the school at Ptolemy Reid Rehabilitation Centre. Above, villagers in traditional dress hold the Queen's Baton when the Commonwealth Games Baton Relay visited in early March - but although some of the Ptolemy Reid school's children took part, their pictures were not shown in local news coverage, a hint of the discrimination against disabled people in Guyana

children whooshing down slides and queuing up for their turn on the swings and climbing frame. But the difference with this play park in Georgetown, Guyana, is that it is "disability friendly". Everything has been specially adapted - the swings have safety seats and there are paved walkways that make it easy for wheelchair users to get around.

It is one of the few facilities in Guyana available for children with disabilities - kids who often remain hidden away from society and face difficulties accessing simple things like a decent education.

Tichina Whyte, 14, and her friends from the school at Ptolemy Reid Rehabilitation Centre, have taken a break from playing and are sitting in the shade talking about the park's resident pony and the fact that it licked the hand of one of the children. The incident is gleefully recounted through a mixture of speech and sign language.

One crucial feature of the disability friendly play park, which was opened in 2012 and was partly funded by an £18,000 donation from Unicef, is that it is there for everyone, in an effort to help tackle the negative attitudes surrounding disability.

The children from the school at the Ptolemy Reid centre, who visit regularly on Fridays, are soon joined on the slides and swings by young pupils from a local private school.

Anand Mangru, head of the Ptolemy Reid school, says the play park had made a huge difference to the children's lives.

"Previously when we came to the park, all we could do was bring a ball and sit under the trees and have a picnic," he says. "Now we have all this interesting equipment, the children are motivated to play when they come here.

"They can move about and get more fresh air into their lungs. It's a kind of therapy which nothing else can give."

Around 15 children from Ptolemy Reid's school attend the park on Friday mornings as a scheduled part of their timetable.

They have a range of disabilities. Shamar (not his real name) who is HIV positive, is using a wheelchair as he has been weakened by the virus. He says riding the pony is one of his favourite parts of being at the park, as well as the swings - and his face visibly lights up in anticipation of making new friends when the children from the other school join them.

Other pupils from the Ptolemy Reid school have conditions including cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and hydrocephalus - a build-up of fluid on the brain which can cause mental and physical disabilities.

Mangru says there were few recreational facilities for disabled children in the area - even attending school can be difficult.

"Generally speaking it is difficult for children with disabilities to access school. Mainstream schools are very reluctant to accept children with a disability. The facilities are not made for them - ramps are not there; sometimes the schools are crowded and the teachers are not trained to handle children with disabilities."

A survey carried out by the Guyanese government's national commission on disability in 2006 reflected these concerns. It found 15% of people with disabilities had never attended school, rising to 42% among those aged under 16. It also found 44% had experienced negative attitudes and behaviours as a result of their disability.

In 2010, the Guyana Persons with Disabilities Act was passed, aimed at protecting the rights of people with disabilities. But there are concerns that progress in this area is too slow. A report by Unicef, The State of the World's Children 2013: Children With Disabilities, highlights concerns that children with disabilities in Guyana can easily become "shut-ins, hidden away from society and unable to attend school or make a meaningful contribution to society".

Back at the Ptolemy Reid centre, Tichina talks about how she likes maths, reading books, and spelling lessons. She boards at the centre every week from Monday to Friday, along with her brother Trivette, 10, who has cerebral palsy.

Their mother, Vislette Critchlow-Whyte, says doctors have not yet been able accurately diagnose the condition which has affected Tichina's ability to move her legs and left her unable to walk.

She first developed symptoms around six years old: a genetic disorder called Wilson's Disease which causes copper to accumulate in the tissues has been put forward as one possibility.

"We are not sure if that is it or not," says Critchlow-Whyte. "Because her legs were affected, they carried out some surgery to loosen the tendons, but since that was done it has been worse."

She had to take Tichina out of a mainstream primary school at around seven or eight years old, due to a lack of support in the classroom.

"Some of the teachers were helpful, but most of them weren't. She couldn't get to the washroom and they didn't want the other children to assist in helping her there, so I had to take her out of school."

Critchlow-Whyte gets around £17 a month per child in "public assistance" money from the government to help with the care of Tichina and Trivette. She says it is not enough to cover costs such as taxis to and from the Ptolemy Reid centre, but can at least rely on income from her work as a confidential secretary.

At home Critchlow-Whyte says attitudes to disability are generally positive, with neighbours often offering to help Tichina with her wheelchair. But she adds: "You do find that in certain parts in town, people just stare at you."

The Ptolemy Reid Rehabilitation Centre was originally set up in the late 1960s to help children who suffered paralysis following two polio epidemics in the country in 1960 and 1964.

Now it assists children with physical and developmental disabilities, with around 19 regular boarders, 30 in day care and 60 students who attend the school. Around 25 adults also attend a regular clinic for amputees, and the centre can provide medical devices such as artificial limbs and hearing aids.

The centre relies on a mix of government funding and charitable donations. Manager Cynthia Massay says it is a constant battle to raise money, but points out a ramp funded by the European Commission and the newly refurbished washrooms and dining room, funded by Unicef.

Other parts of the centre are more basic - while the dormitory for girls is clean, it is crowded with beds and there is little room to move about. One table at the side of a bed has a precariously balanced pile of cuddly toys. Sadly, some children who are resident at the centre have nowhere else to go.

"The two girls who are in their beds over there have been abandoned," Massay says, pointing. "And it looks as if another girl is going to be abandoned as her foster parents have run into difficulties.

"The people who looked after her are now looking after their ill grandmother. Then the young man back here, he has been abandoned. There are at least six children who have no homes to go to."

At the back of the centre is the area which used to serve as the main play facility for the children. The bare concrete surface and frame with just two swings is in sharp contrast to the modern facilities at the new play park. "It is why the play park is so good," Massay adds.

Two large tables are sitting outside in the concrete play area, which have recently been used by the children to make masks and costumes for Mashramani, the annual festival held in February that celebrates Guyana becoming a republic in 1970. Massay says they are keen to involve the children in national activities and celebrations, but adds that while attitudes towards disability have improved, there is still a long way to go.

"It is a lot better than it was say 10 years ago, but it's not what it should be," she says.

She points to the example of the local newspaper coverage of the Queen's Baton Relay, which children from the Ptolemy Reid Rehabilitation Centre participated in when it visited Guyana earlier this month ahead of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

"I may be biased, of course, but to me the front page picture, or at least a picture somewhere, should have been of our children with the baton," she says. "But there was not one single mention, not one single picture.

"It just tells you that we are still not where we should be."

To donate, you can send a cheque or postal order to UNICEF Children of the Commonwealth Appeal, Freepost RTCU-SJSX-KCXA, UNICEF House, 30a Great Sutton Street, London, England, EC1V 0DU, call 0800 044 5777, visit unicef.org.uk/herald or text 'CHILD' to 70111 to give £3.

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Families

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