In my experience of 6 years working with children with disabilities in Rwanda, I have seen that one of the key barriers young children with disabilities face is the negative attitudes toward them and a lack of awareness of their rights and needs. Stigma, discrimination, segregation, isolation, and a negative perception towards them are all main barriers that prohibit their Early Childhood Development (ECD).
To overcome these barriers, Chance for Childhood introduced inclusive ECD (iECD) services and awareness-raising activities in northern province, Musanze district of Rwanda in 2018. In two years, I have seen a big positive change in attitudes of children, parents, ECD caregivers and the community.
Creating an inclusive ECD services environment
Giving excluded young children with disabilities or delay development inclusive ECD services requires a robust data system, coordinated action outside of the education sector, and changing attitudes and beliefs towards people with disabilities. Situation analysis showed us that there were a limited number of children with disabilities in ECD centres. Those that were there faced social stigma caused by poor understanding of fellow children, ECD caregivers, parents and the community. We found that ECD caregivers had limited knowledge and skills on how to include children with disabilities.
We learnt that a strong focus on inclusion in the early years can go a long way to ensuring early detection of disabilities or developmental delay, meaning we can make the right interventions early on. So, we started by training Community Health Workers and have worked with them to identify 115 children with disabilities and refer them to different services such as medical, nutrition and social services. 65 health workers were trained to support us to deliver and progressively monitor home based inclusive ECD practices with parents at home. They provided daily family support to children at risk of developmental delays or disabilities.
During their trainings, ECD caregivers were taught the skills they need to support children with disabilities. This meant that enrolled children with disabilities were given plenty of opportunities for practical learning through inclusive ECD services. Play, early stimulation, self-help, and life skills were recognised as being equally important as numeracy and literacy skills in ECD centres as well as home.
Call for inclusive actions through community events
With the implementation of this project, we knew that a lack of data, discrimination, and stigma around disabilities has always led children with disabilities to the most excluded groups from education. So, we continuously involved district staff for them to be effective and active advocators for the rights of children with disabilities. Parents of children with disabilities also learned about the importance of inclusive ECD services.
“I used to think that our child with severe disabilities would never learn something new in life but today we have learnt that even understanding their needs is part of learning”Mother who took part in our community event
Sensitisation sessions resulted in parents giving their children the right stimulation and learning, sanitation, security and nutrition at home. We found that the whole community in the areas we worked in had a shift in their attitude and behaviours towards children with disabilities. We also supported parents to create Parent Support Groups, where they came together to support each other, share ideas and campaign against social stigma faced by their children with disabilities.
The participation and commitment of a broad range of stakeholders (parents, community, local leaders and others) as well as large-scale awareness programs (community events, trainings, parent meetings) have made inclusive education a reality in Musanze District.
Children with disabilities are losing out more due to Covid-19
COVID-19 has made the situation worse for children with disabilities due to the lockdown measures that have had a major effect on the country’s economy. Businesses in the agricultural sector have been especially hit. Most families of children with disabilities suffered double consequences. Before the pandemic many parents undertook casual work on the farms to feed and support their children with disabilities. Under lockdown, they couldn’t. To support 45 children who were most at risk of hunger and malnutrition, Chance for Childhood provided food parcels. We also distributed hygiene materials and PPE to help them adhere to the government directives around Covid-19 prevention.
Inclusion Trainer – Rwanda