14 Nov 2013

Cooks nun says attitudes changing towards disabled people through education

5:36 pm on 14 November 2013

A nun on Mauke in the Cook Islands says attitudes towards disabled people have slowly changed with the help of education.

A centre for people with disabilities on the island was opened in 2000 and has been home to programmes teaching people how to treat disabled people and support the elderly.

Sister Madeline Cavanagh told Beverley Tse, people on Mauke are growing in their understanding of people with disabilities.

MADELINE CAVANAGH: Dealing with the disabled, the people here generally have the idea it is a punishment from God. They would hide their people. So around the late 1990s a sister from another congregation was visiting the homes of children she taught and discovered there were some disabled people who were just kept in back rooms and not cared for properly, you know? So she began to invite the families to bring them to her house and they would bathe them and provide food. Then, as time went on and she got some of the people interested, they started looking for a site. They got funding, put together probably the majority of the money that was needed to build what we now see as the current centre. But Sister Emma needed to leave the island. She tried some committee members to form a small committee to keep the work going, but it didn't work out. So in 2005 they asked for Our Sisters, another congregation of women religious, and Our Sisters came and continued to work with the people at the centre and began to receive the frail elderly. But the problem was there still was not a good attitude. People did not understand. Their attitude was 'The family is responsible. They have to take care of it. It's their sin' or whatever the case might be. And it still was a problem. We had workshops. We brought people over. In fact, one woman came from New Zealand who had a son who was autistic. And one of our biggest challenges is an autistic woman we have. She came and talked to them about attitudes and all. So we've had different groups come in and work with the general population to help them understand the value and the importance of people who are disabled, and how we can benefit and learn from them and how they are children of god with the same rights as we have.

BEVERLEY TSE: So would you say people have a better understanding of things like autism and other mental health issues?

MADELINE CAVANAGH: Better. And their attitudes have improved somewhat, too, which I learned because somebody told me once that we weren't going to change anybody's way of doing things. So I asked and a number of people affirmed that. I thought 'Oh, we haven't achieved anything'. Then a thought occurred to me and I asked 'Have attitudes changed?' And they all said yes. And I went to the mother of the autistic women who suffered the most with people accusing her and all, and I said 'Have you seen a change in attitude?' She said yes.

BEVERLEY TSE: So what is the attitude now?

MADELINE CAVANAGH: The attitude now is that they are children of God. They are people who have a right to be respected. They have to be treated well.