Improving employment opportunities by forging links with national agencies for further training and job enhancement, is the aim of the Abilities Foundation, as they continue to reach out to persons with disabilities. Administered by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security (MLSS) since 1992, the Foundation currently caters for 66 students, ranging from 17 to 65 years, with challenges, such as hearing and visual impairments, and physical and intellectual disabilities. Guidance Counsellor at the Foundation, Coral Mason, informs that the facility is committed to providing quality vocational education to persons with disabilities, enabling them to function as creative and productive citizens in the society. “The courses that we offer at the Foundation are garment construction, furniture making, general office administration, ornamental horticulture, landscaping, and data operation,” she tells JIS News. She points out that the programmes offered are a joint initiative between the Ministry and the HEART Trust/NTA, after which a National Vocational Qualification of Jamaica (NVQJ) certificate is issued at the end of each course. Miss Mason adds that the HEART Trust provides a small stipend of $250 for each student on a weekly basis. She explains that students are assessed before they are enrolled at the Foundation, to determine the appropriate course to be undertaken. “When the students come in, they are required to sit an entry test at the Grade Four level, which determines the level they are at. If they perform well on the examination, they are then tested at the Grade Nine level, which entails reasoning, Mathematics and English Language. Students at this level undertake the more theoretical courses, such as data operation, and office administration,” she notes. Highlighting the Motto, ‘Opportunity… Not Charity’, Miss Mason says the aim is to equip students with the required skills, so that on completion of their course, they can find their place in society. “What we are doing is helping them to prepare for the future. But some of them are unable to do so because of financial constraints. So, we would really love if corporate Jamaica could partner with us to help them,” she appeals. Miss Mason tells JIS News that most of the students are from poor economic backgrounds, and just want the opportunity to acquire a skill, so that they can support themselves. “We would really love to get some subsidy to help needy students with travelling expenses, especially those travelling from Manchester, Clarendon, and St. Mary. We know that there are many others living in other parishes who would really love to come into the facility, but it is too expensive for them to travel so far,” she notes. She says the Foundation is grateful for the tremendous support from the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities (JCPD) and the Kiwanis Club which, over the years, have rendered financial assistance to several students. “We have received a number of scholarships and subsidies from both the JCPD and the Kiwanis Club for some of our students, to aid with their school fees. They have also assisted us with wheelchairs and hearing aids, which help to facilitate the learning process for some students,” she tells JIS News. Miss Mason says outside of the courses offered, counselling support is provided to students, because most of them lack self-esteem for numerous reasons. “We have small counselling sessions weekly, where social workers and guidance counsellors interact and teach the students good work ethics. This session also facilitates the process of social and emotional re-adjustment, to ensure effective integration into the wider society,” she explains. She points out that while funding remains a challenge, the Foundation is seeking to open a library, and offer additional courses, such as computer service technician, food preparation, music production, and customer service. She points out that applicants who wish to register at the Foundation are required to pay a fee of $20,000 annually, and have their National Insurance Scheme (NIS) card, Tax Registration Number (TRN), and birth certificate to complete the process. “If prospective students do not have the relevant documents, we help them to obtain such documents, and try to seek financial assistance for those in dire need,” she says. When students get enrolled, they are provided with a special identification card from the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities, which is used to access benefits such as the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) bus pass service, and other welfare privileges. Miss Mason tells JIS News that much more needs to be done to ensure that persons with disabilities are included in the economic, civil and political processes of the country. She is appealing to organisations and individuals that can help, to call the Abilities Foundation at 969-5720 or 924-6619.