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CHATS Antigua Changing the disability narrative

Mona Gardner is a speech-language pathologist on the Caribbean island of Antigua & Barbuda. Her Center for the Holistic Advancement of Therapeutic Services (CHATS) is the only such practice on the island where for the past five years, she and her team have been diligently working to change the invisible disability narrative on the island.

Her journey with speech-language pathology started within her household. Eighteen years ago, after her younger brother was born, daily she observed the difficulties her mom endured, knowing that something was a little bit different about her son, but not having access to resources for a diagnosis. Finding a professional to give advice or a diagnosis was challenging and hope within her household began to dissipate. At three years old, her brother showed the typical signs of a child who had delayed communication skills and was at risk for developing some sort of learning disability. He was a late talker, had constant ear infections and also had issues socializing at preschool. He then went on to Kindergarten and there too he was not succeeding academically – the teachers wanted him to repeat Kindergarten. Mona remembers the pain of watching her mom cry in despair as an institution blamed her for being the reason her son was not able to accomplish certain milestones, as expected. Specifically, it was a note telling her mom that it was her fault he had to repeat Kindergarten, because “you are not spending enough time with your child.” Her brother was moved from school to school – four primary schools in total – and it was while he attended an international school on the island that had teachers on staff who were trained in special needs from Canada, that they were able to meet his learning needs. Although her brother changed school due to the closing of the international school, while at his next school he continued to flourish. Focus was then placed on his abilities, they concentrated on his strengths and from within him an entirely new personality and confidence emerged. Hope was restored to her family and Mona knew she had found her profession!

Her brother’s diagnosis lit a fire in her to help families in similar situations. The career toward speech-language pathology was birthed, but it was not a straight forward journey. She was a biology major at Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey, en route to becoming an otolaryngologist. While visiting her speech-language pathologist cousin, Mona decided to shadow her at work for a few days. Career-curious discussions with her ensued and Mona then realized conclusively that she wanted to diagnose, play an integral part in the intervention, the turnaround and provide help holistically and meaningfully to people who needed speech-language pathology remediation. But she was already three years into her biology program, it was difficult to change her major and the university she attended did not even offer speech-language pathology! That fire, however, was now lit, and fueled with determination, she found another university that offered the prerequisites for speech-language pathology and did an overwhelmingly taxing credit overload. It was difficult, but she persevered and succeeded. Her Master’s Degree in Speech Language Pathology was thereafter obtained with distinction from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. In 2016 she then returned home to Antigua and opened her private practice.

CHATS is housed in what was once just a building with a wide-open hall. Mona’s vision for a functional, therapeutic, accessible space was brought to life by Antiguan Interior Designer, Charmaine Werth. Visual, sensory, therapy and observation rooms were all expertly designed to cater to the needs of her clients. Observation rooms are both visual and audio so parents do not have to sit in therapy sessions with their children as this can sometimes be a distraction. But Mona likes them to see what is being done so they can continue the therapy at home, so the rooms are inviting, comfortable, practical and functional. Her building is also fully accessible.

The range of services offered by CHATS fills just a small portion of the speech-language pathology void on Antigua & Barbuda. Families come to her directly but referrals are also sent from schools, pediatricians in the hospitals and private clinics, the Special Needs unit of the Ministry of Education and also Social Services department will identify families in need and send them to her. There is a lot of people to be helped and with her being the only practice on the island, many are not able to receive her services directly, but she tries to assist as best she can. She would go into the classroom of her clients to see how the environment can be made more language-rich. She’ll coach the teacher on ways to support the children and advise on modifications that can be made in the classroom. Mona works with the entire lifespan, from babies to the geriatric. Catering to that wide demographic, public education plays a big part in helping her to change the narrative and there have been collaborative efforts with the media to that end. She is also educating families, her staff and her friends, hoping knowledge can be spread through that medium. Mona and her staff at CHATS are also exposing their client-children to different activities, such as taking them horseback riding, swimming, tennis – and by so doing they are teaching the children functional skills, and persons in the community, how to deal with the challenges that interacting with a person with an invisible disability may bring.

CHATS teaches parents to be their child’s biggest advocate, empowering them so their hope will remain. In addition to speech and language services, CHATS offers early intervention services where they focus on the global development of each child. This program was birthed as many families come to them with the notion that their child will never be able to do a specific thing and that breaks Mona’s heart, so she reminds her staff that, “Through our early intervention program we’re holding the hands of all families and advocating for and with them so their child can achieve functionality within society. We’re going to make them functional.” And her promise: “if it takes me 10 years to make your child function, I’m holding your hand until then.” 80% of the people she sees are children with autism.

Mona’s practice is run with genuine care for her families as she knows first-hand the heartache of parents or guardians seeing their child live with an invisible disability. Her own family having lived through a lengthy emotional rollercoaster before and even after her brother’s diagnosis, she is determined to change the narrative on the island. Society’s insensitivity, lack of awareness and acceptance is a constant source of immense stress for families that are already learning how to raise a child with a developmental disorder or learning disability. Support is needed, not shame or blame.

Mona says proudly, “my brother is severely dyslexic but does that mean that he can’t learn? Absolutely not! My brother’s vocabulary is more extensive than mine. He’s an auditory learner and does things differently. He’s a good at drawing and he’s amazing! He has so much to contribute to society and we refuse to let anyone limit him. We are his biggest advocates. He is now a college engineering student and we’re so proud of him!”

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