We had the privilege of hosting a workshop at the hospital recently on the topic of inclusive education, specifically for those with physical disabilities. This workshop was organized by IAS (International Aid Services), and it was a great event – very encouraging and very informative. A number of different partner organizations were present, including representatives of the Nigerien Ministry of Education (specifically from the Inclusive Education Division), Handicap International, the Nigerien Federation of Handicapped People, CBM, Plan International, The Leprosy Mission and others. And of course, the venue for the workshop was the CURE Hospital here in Niamey, which was fitting and appropriate given the subject matter. We were happy to host and to participate in this important event.
IAS Workshop at the CURE Hôpital des Enfants au Niger. Photo credit – Paul Hayes.
One of the representatives of the Ministry of Education gave a presentation on Niger’s National Strategy for inclusive education, which was very interesting. It was encouraging to learn about the national strategy, and to know that Niger even has a national strategy, since that is not always the case in every country, and represents at least a good first step. We learned about the integrated approach to inclusive education, as well as a number of other related themes, including accessibility.
One of the things that she shared regarding the importance of accessibility really struck me – she offered an example of chalkboards that are inaccessible to students in wheelchairs because they are too high up on the wall. This is a common problem in Nigerien classrooms, but there is an easy solution – simply lower the chalkboards (especially since most of them are painted on the classroom walls with blackboard paint). She pointed out that even though this may seem like a small thing, you should never underestimate the pedagogical impact being called up to the chalkboard has on a student. That is so true, and I remember going up to the chalkboard in front of the whole class from my own days as a student. That mixture of anxiety and pride. It really is a kind of a rite of passage for young students. I never really thought about it before, and I never considered what it would mean to not be called up to the chalkboard, ever, or to be called up and to be unable to reach it.
In this case, a simple solution is available. Lowering a chalkboard is an easy thing to do, and something that could have a huge impact on everyone involved – on a child with a disability in that class of course, but also on the rest of the class. However, things are not always that simple. Sometimes ensuring accessibility requires a lot more, and this is a challenge for us at the hospital as well. We try to make everything we do accessible, and not just physically accessible with ramps or handrails – which is of course important – but also in a broader sense. At our hospital we try to cater to children who have physical disabilities, in a context and culture where both children and those with disabilities usually overlooked, and never seen as the priority.
We also had a representative from Handicap International give a presentation on the work they have done in inclusive education, throughout the country. It was very interesting, and encouraging to hear of the progress that has been made. Still, however, there is much work to do. He shared a sobering statistic – 78% of people with physical disabilities in Niger are not educated and 58% have no gainful employment or means of supporting themselves. It is no wonder then, that for so many people with disabilities in Niger, the only option they have is to beg for money on the street.
We also heard from Mr. Stephen Mwaura, who works with IAS on inclusive education, and is based in Kenya. His presentation was also very informative and challenging, and I really liked something he said in the beginning of his talk. He said that of all the challenges that we face with inclusive education, including the securing of support and funding, lining up resources, lobbying for governmental buy-in, the biggest challenge is changing attitudes. Until people see that children with disabilities have a right to education and deserve to be invested in, and that they have a contribution to make to society, progress will difficult and slow. We have found this to be true in the work that we do as well. Many times people are unwilling to invest in the healing of their child because they feel like it is a waste of time. Eventually, and unfortunately, parents who have been told over and over that their child can never be healed, and that the situation is hopeless start to believe it. They get to a point where they are not even willing to try to find healing for their children.
Mr. Mwaura also spoke about how many of the disabilities that prevent people from being educated throughout Africa are not congenital and actually preventable. Many are the result of negligence or a lack of access to qualified medical care. But in either case, the result is the same: exclusion, rejection and marginalization. The whole goal of inclusive education, therefore, is to remove barriers – and that is exactly what we do at CURE.
Our approach to healing is holistic, and our goal is to help children with these debilitating conditions integrate back into society. We want to help the children that come to our hospital reach their full potential, and education is obviously central to that. We contribute towards inclusive education by helping improve their physical condition so that they can go to school, or go back to school. And the children are usually very motivated. In fact, often the first question our patients ask when they are ready to go home after their surgery is, “Can I go to school now?”
At CURE we believe that healing changes everything, and the same is of course true for education. Nothing brings us greater joy than seeing children who were given up on and seen as hopeless reach their full potential and become the people that God intended them to be.