February marked the official launch of our LEAP project in Kisumu, Western Kenya. This is a four year initiative funded by Comic Relief and we aim to improve access to quality, inclusive education for street children with special educational needs.
Wherever possible, ‘inclusive’ education is the approach we believe in. This means integrating and children with disabilities and special learning needs into mainstream schools, rather than sending them to specialist schools. These specialist schools might be appropriate for some children (like some of the profoundly deaf children we work with in Rwanda for example), but in rural areas they’re often boarding schools situated a long way from most children’s villages. This can isolate children from their families and communities, and it reinforces the stigma people have towards disability.
Being away from a family environment and out of school, exposure to violence and abuse could make street children more vulnerable to developing learning and communication difficulties. This presents a unique set of challenges and without appropriate support, reintegrating them into society and mainstream education becomes difficult.
Children living or ‘working’ on the streets often have led very chaotic or traumatic lives at home. Most have missed out on the social interaction in a nurturing home environment that the rest of us take for granted. Many won’t have developed basic language skills, or have learned fundamental social skills like playing nicely with other children, communicating their feelings, listening to others, and respecting other people’s feelings or property. Without these, it is very hard to adapt to the routine and rules of a school environment. Many street children have been abused or severely neglected at home, and without proper counselling and support, these early experiences can have an extremely detrimental effect on the rest of their lives.
Combining efforts with our in-country partners Kisumu Urban Apostolate Programmes (KUAP) Pandipieri as well as Yellow House Children’s Services Trust, the LEAP project will directly benefit street-connected children with special educational needs including those with communication disabilities. All street connected children at KUAP’s centre were found to have learning difficulties; half of them presented expressive language disorders. Out of 205 patients in Kisumu’s informal settlements who received speech and language therapy from Yellow House, 72% were children under 10. This demonstrated that this was a widespread issue that needed to be addressed. These language and communication difficulties are not the result of physical disabilities like cerebral palsy, so they are often not recognised or acknowledged.
We will be working closely with staff from local street children organisations to identify the children’s special needs and develop individual learning plans to successfully reintegrate them into mainstream education. Marginalised groups with ‘hidden’ learning disabilities continue to be denied quality education due to the lack of specialists available to support their needs.
Our consultation with teachers of seven Kisumu primary schools (2015) found that no teachers were trained to respond to communication disabilities. In response to this, we will train teachers across 69 State schools covering four Districts to adapt more inclusive teaching methods and manage challenging behaviours appropriately. 75 Learning Support Assistants will also be providing individual classroom support, ensuring that the children get the long-term personal support they need.
We understand the depth of the issue and recognise the need for a holistic approach. Hence, we will be setting up a consortium of 13 organisations to enhance coordination and capacity amongst local organisations and education providers to better respond to the needs of street-connected children and advocate for better provisions by the local government. We will be working closely with school leaders and frontline workers including probation and police officers and social workers to implement Child Protection policies and ensure fair treatment for street children within education and custodial systems.
To eradicate social stigma and challenge violence faced by children with disabilities in their communities, we will roll out a series of awareness raising events on Child Rights and train 20 community members as ‘violence prevention activists’. We will also be setting up school clubs to promote peer support and prevent school-based stigma.
With support from the community, schools and families, we’re working hard to improve access to an inclusive, quality education for street children in Kisumu. And we’re helping to build and strengthen the systems that protect them and that tackle the stigma that prevents children with disabilities from being treated fairly and humanely by their own communities.