Disability in Rwanda, as in much of sub-Saharan Africa, can be a huge hurdle to overcome. For far too many children, it’s the reason they don’t go to school or get a quality education.
What stops many disabled children in Rwanda getting a good education?
- Family poverty means that families prioritise sending their non-disabled children to school
- There’s a lack of specialist schools or equipment
- Transport and physical access is a major issue for many. Rural Rwanda is not a very wheelchair accessible place.
- A lack of teachers trained in appropriate teaching techniques
- Stigma and discrimination around disability means that society often just doesn’t value disabled children or their education.
With scarce resources, the few disabled children who do attend school are often all gathered together in the same classroom or school. Yet this is rarely a good long term solution as children with hearing difficulties have very different needs from those with dyslexia for example.
Added to that, and in many ways related to it, is the big stigma around disability. Families often feel ashamed of disabled relatives and see the disability as some kind of curse or punishment. When disabled children aren’t sent to school they can be seen as a burden and are sometimes sent onto the streets to beg or are kept locked up at home.
Because disabled children are often kept hidden at home, no-one really knew how many disabled children there are in the Musanze province of northern Rwanda. The first step is to find out the scale of the problem. We’ve undertaken the first ever community mapping project to answer that question.
It’s a systematic process and a resource intensive one. We went into villages, communities, schools and homes in each of the three districts to build a thorough map of how many children with disabilities there are in the area, where they are, and what their needs are.
We found 8,117 disabled people, including 847 of whom had hearing or communication impairments.
Access to better quality education
We’ve identified and trained a team of 12 Learning Support Assistants (LSAs) who work very much like ones in UK schools do. They go into the classrooms and sit alongside children with special learning needs. These might be hearing difficulties or other disabilities or learning problems. Each LSA supports 3-4 students.
The LSAs act as social workers too – helping encourage parents to send their children to school in the first place. Some of the children are deeply traumatised by the violence they’ve experienced or witnessed and this can manifest itself in learning and behavioural problems.
The Deaf school
Hearing impairment is one of the issues we’re focusing on. We support a boarding school for deaf and hard-of-hearing children in Nyabihu. At any point in time it usually has about 80 pupils.
The school teaches children sign language and lip-reading as well as the Rwandan national curriculum. Most children with a hearing impairment will have fallen behind their peers because of the lack of trained teachers and facilities. The Deaf School provides an accelerated learning programme that aims to help them catch up with where they should be in the curriculum.
It’s deliberately a temporary programme – we believe in the ‘inclusive’ model of education – i.e. that disabled children should be taught and integrated into mainstream schools where possible. This is one of the best ways of tackling the stigma around disability and it means the students don’t come to depend on us or the Deaf School in the long run.
After a year or so, the children who aren’t profoundly deaf have caught up to their peers and are given the lip-reading skills and/or a hearing aid that enables them to return to their local school and learn alongside their neighbours.
The children who are more profoundly deaf and who won’t be able to learn in a mainstream environment tend to stay longer in the school. We’re teaching them vocational and business skills like carpentry and electronics so they’ll be able to earn a living when they graduate.
We don’t have the money to make great films like this – but this clip from a Channel 4 documentary in neighbouring Uganda shows how sign language can open up a whole new world for deaf children. See what happened when our VSO volunteer Isobel went to meet Patrick for herself.
Community Awareness Raising
We are going into mainstream schools and hosting our own community events throughout Musanze to raise awareness about children’s rights, and those of disabled children in particular. In the local schools for example we run poetry and drama workshops that teach the students and challenge their assumptions about disabled children.
This project is funded by Comic Relief