When Joseph Burlò, conscious of his stammer, was advised to seek the help of a speech therapist, little did he think that such a personal matter would also be a turning point for his home country.

Burlò – an unsung pioneer in the local disability sector – had won a scholarship at Southampton University to study English literature, where, conscious of his speech impairment, he held back from joining class discussions.

After overcoming the stammer through therapy, he trained as a speech therapist and eventually introduced the service for children in Malta.

This little-known fact about Burlò has come to light in an exhibition organised by the Department of Disability Studies and the University of Malta Library, with the support of his daughter Dr Marian Muscat Azzopardi. A series of documents and photos detailing Burlò’s “life in the service of people with disability in Malta” are being exhibited on the ground floor of the university’s main library.

This is the first time such documents, by and about Burlò – who died in 1993 – are being made available to the public.  The documents will eventually also be available on the library’s website.

The material provided important information about a missing piece in the history of disability in Malta- Disability studies professor Anne-Marie Callus

Asked about the relevance of such documents to the current challenges, disability studies professor Anne-Marie Callus said the material provided important information about a missing piece in the history of disability in Malta.

“While Mgr Mikiel Azzopardi has long been given the recognition and praise that he deserves, Burlò has remained largely an unsung hero.

“Knowing about his work will also help us understand better the past and how it has developed into what we have at present – therefore also understanding better the current situation,” she told Times of Malta.

Burlò, she explained, was instrumental in setting up the special school system for children with disability. Although nowadays, a segregated system is considered a rather outdated educational approach, he was working with the wisdom of his time on the best way to provide education for students with disability.

'Instrumental in setting up centre for blind, visually impaired'

He was also instrumental in setting up a day centre for blind and visually impaired adults where they worked on cane baskets which they then sold, and he also eventually helped set up the Malta Society for the Blind.

In some ways, he was ahead of his time, focusing on the rights and dignity of people with disability, such as through an article he penned titled One cannot live by pity alone (‘Bil-ħasra biss ma tgħix’).

Callus recounts that Burlò’s career in the disability sector came about following a personal experience.

He was studying English literature at the age of 18 in the UK when one of his lecturers spoke to him about his stammer and urged him to seek the help of a speech therapist. 

In 1938, he won another scholarship at St Mary’s College, London, to study to become a headteacher. However, due to the onset of World War II, Burlò did not return to the island to fulfil this role and instead joined the Royal Air Forces.

Archbishop Michael Gonzi being given a Braille reading demonstration. Photo provided by Marian Muscat AzzopardiArchbishop Michael Gonzi being given a Braille reading demonstration. Photo provided by Marian Muscat Azzopardi

Returned to Malta after the war

Burlò returned to Malta briefly after the war, where he started his own family and worked as a headteacher. But he flew back to the UK on a third scholarship – this time at the University of Glasgow, where he studied speech therapy.

Upon his return to Malta, Burlò was asked by the then director of education JP Vassallo to carry out a survey to determine how many children needed speech therapy locally.

Callus said that was when Burlò realised there was a wide range of needs that were not being catered for by the educational system. 

“This was the starting point of his work. He introduced speech therapy in Malta and eventually became Education Officer for Special Education.”

In the 1950s, Burlò received a fourth scholarship to study in the UK, where he explored what the disability sector had to offer so that he could replicate it in Malta. Callus noted that throughout, Burlò used all the help he could get, including that of the governor and his wife, with the documents exhibited at the university’s library showing that he received support from various sources. 

He continued supporting people with disability even following his retirement in the 1970s.

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