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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, February 23, 2024
HomeNewsLocal newsNot for Profit: Disability Center Levels the Field

Not for Profit: Disability Center Levels the Field

A recent conference on autism, sponsored by V.I. University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, drew a crowd. (Photo provided by VIUCEDD)About 16,000 people in the Virgin Islands face extra challenges in life because of one or another disability. It may be a question of mobility or another obvious physical condition such as blindness or deafness, or it may be a developmental disability such as autism.

Whatever the cause, the Virgin Islands University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities has a mission to help people live “productively, happily and fully included as members of the society or community,” according to Yegin Habtes, the center’s executive director.

Founded in 1994, VIUCEDD operates out of the University of the Virgin Islands but its work is community-based and it partners with a number of local entities, including the public school system.

The center is funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Habtes said. Its website also lists as funders the Administration on Developmental Disabilities and the U.S. Department of Education, Office of National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

In its 20-plus years the center has gone a long way in raising awareness, advocating for inclusion, and providing practical assistance.

Among its accomplishments is the development of a certification program in inclusive early-childhood education. Aimed at people working in day care centers, the certification can lead to an associate’s degree and bachelor’s degree.

“I’m very proud of that program,” Habtes said. Too many places separated children with disabilities from their peers rather than helping them to integrate, he said. “We wanted to bring an end to that.”

The center also was instrumental in establishing training for V.I. residents in recognizing children with developmental disabilities. Previously, Habtes said, most of the psychologists who conducted diagnostic tests came from outside the territory. It seemed important to have people who understood the local culture, customs and language – that is, its expressions, idioms and pronunciation.

So VIUCEDD developed an education specialist program and has trained about 15 people so far, Habtes said. All of them have been hired by the V.I. Education Department.

A lot of the center’s work focuses on education and training.

If you are hearing-impaired and you go to the Labor Department, for instance, you will find people there who can communicate with you because they took training in American Sign Language sponsored by VIUCEDD.

Recently, the center provided sensitivity training to new police officers, helping them learn to recognize hidden disabilities in people they may encounter in a traffic stop, at a crime scene, or in any variety of encounters.

In December, VIUCEDD will host its annual Voices That Count conference.

“We’ve been doing this for 12 years,” Habtes said.

A mix of education, awareness and advocacy, the conference brings together policy-makers with people who have disabilities. In election years, the conference generally is held in October, and all candidates for public office are invited.

The center also sponsors a yearly conference on autism, in April.

It holds monthly workshops for parents and caregivers, supplying practical advice and updates on the latest developments, and it works with other agencies to provide in-service training.

One of its most popular initiatives involves assistive technology. Through V.I. Technology Related for Individuals with Disabilities, the center provides funding and helps people get low-interest loans to purchase specialized equipment – everything from a wheelchair ramp to a computer that talks. It maintains technology centers on St. Croix and St. Thomas where people can view assistive devices and also demonstrates them throughout the community.

“These technologies are starting to take people from the back to the front,” Habtes said.

Available loans range from $1,000 to $15,000. So far, about 100 people have taken advantage of the program, he said.

“No one has ever defaulted,” he added.

More information on VIUCEDD and its many programs is available by contacting Habtes at 340-693-1323. 

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