Our Education, Equality and Empowerment (EEE) project in northern Rwanda completed a three-stage community mapping on previously hidden and unrecorded numbers of children and young people with disabilities living in rural areas across three northern Districts (Musanze, Gakenke and Nyabihu). A total of 1,341 people aged 3-25 across Musanze and Gakenke alone were found to have a communication disability. But identifying these vulnerable children is only the start.
We’re committed to create sustainable change by helping these children and their families to learn the skills that will enable their children to become more included and accepted in their communities.
Disability still carries a big stigma in northern Rwanda. Families often see disabled children as a burden, and sometimes even as an evil curse. The children are rarely sent to school because teachers and schools are ill-equipped to provide tailored support to these children, and because the families view education for disabled children as a waste of time and money.
Deaf children or those with communication difficulties are particularly excluded from family and everyday life because they’re often unable to express themselves or understand much of what is happening around them.
Our communication camps were therefore set up to directly address the gaps in available services and support for children with communication disabilities. Speech and Language Therapists and Occupation Therapists teach children and their families how to communicate with each other. In the case of deaf children, this includes teaching the family the basics of sign language. For children with more complex conditions like cerebral palsy, the camps also teach the parents how to safely feed their children and how to stretch their limbs properly.
The communication camps are life-transforming for those who attend. Some of the children have been trapped in their own bodies and minds for many years, having never even had the most basic social interactions with their own families. The camps unlock this prison and open the children up to a new lifetime of shared experiences and inclusion into society.
Teaching parents on how to communicate with their children properly for the first time demonstrates to the parents that their disabled children are often funny, intelligent individuals with unique personalities – and that they can make an important contribution to family life.
Challenging the stigma and misunderstanding around disability starts here and it’s the children and their families who are the most powerful voices within the larger community. Seeing disabled children play, learn and contribute alongside their peers is one of the best tool for changing societal attitudes about disability.