“One billion people globally have a disability. 80% of these live in developing countries. People with disabilities often face significant levels of discrimination and stigma in their everyday lives. As a result, many are not visible in society, and are prevented from participating in their communities and families. Women and girls with disabilities are at particular risk as they live with double discrimination.” (DFID, December 2014)
Girls with disabilities are often marginalised, shunned and hidden away at home. Some are even abused by people close to them. I recently visited a project in Kenya, run by Leonard Cheshire Disability and supported by the Girls’ Education Challenge, which aims to help girls with disabilities integrate better into society and go to school and learn.
The project works with local communities and national government to help them understand that relatively small changes can help get children with disabilities into mainstream schools.
It has undertaken a number of activities in the community to change the perception of parents and community about valuing their children with disabilities.
It has revived Assessment Centres and parents have started bringing their children to be assessed and given assistive devices such as reading glasses, hearing aids and wheelchairs, before enrolling them in school.
It is also helping other students and teachers to work alongside children with disabilities and to see them as able and capable in their own ways.
The schools supported by the project have made physical changes, such as building ramps to help children with mobility problems and interweaving translucent sheets in the roof to allow sufficient light in for those with poor vision. The schools that I visited also had a separate resource room with materials to help students with disabilities (and those without) to visualise and feel objects.
The feedback has been positive. So much so that other schools are borrowing materials. District officers and head teachers also said that other schools are keen to copy this model - but funding is a barrier.
There have also been overwhelmingly positive changes in the attitudes of the girls, parents and teachers:
- The girls are very pleased to be in school, equipped with their assistive devices, be they glasses, hearing aids or wheelchairs. Many of the girls interviewed have ambitions to complete secondary school and go on to become nurses, teachers, doctors, pilots, lawyers, newscasters, journalists, engineers, policewomen and a tailor. One wanted to become a politician.
- Other students are helping immobile girls around the school and a group of children are learning sign language, including the girls and boys without hearing or speech impairments.
- Teachers are supportive of the goal to get children with disabilities into school and get along well with their fellow students. One teacher even said: “Even if the girls are not learning, at least they are safe at school instead of being home alone and being subject to prey.”
- Parents interviewed expressed how they appreciate the support provided to their daughters to be in school. Many have also dedicated time and effort to send and pick the girls up from school.
Despite a number of positive changes on the ground, challenges do remain. Even though the schools had ramps and flat surfaces enabling the children with disabilities to move around the compound, the path from their home to the school is often unpaved and uneven. Parents are also struggling with the payment of school fees and, at times, have prioritised sending their children who are not disabled. This includes girls and boys - we should not forget the boys who need support.
On reflection, there are many things that could be done to support children with disabilities, even in the UK, but for me it starts with recognition of the problem and a change in attitude. This project is paving the way in changing not only the attitudes on a ground and the national level in Kenya, but hopefully it will also inform the policy-making of other donors and implementers.
It is amazing to see the level of change with just over a year of implementation. However, the journey has just begun and more awareness and policy shifts at the national and county level are vital to make lasting changes in the lives of these children and their families. On a personal level, I have also become more aware of the different types of disabilities and how we, as individuals can make a difference to the lives of people with disabilities, visible or otherwise.
Soha Sudtharalingam works for the Girls' Education Challenge (GEC), supporting projects in East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Soha comes from Malaysia. She holds a PhD in Engineering and is a member of the International Development team at PwC.
Photo Credit: Leonard Cheshire Disability