In the US, people with physical disabilities focus on fighting stigma, on being viewed as people who can do almost anything despite of their physical limitations, and on fighting for the world to make appropriate accommodations in order to even the playing field.
In Kenya, like so many low-income countries, people with physical disabilities, children in particular, are fighting for their very survival.
A friend, who runs a school for the disabled here, recently told me an illustrative story. The man who founded the school was visiting a friend in a rural area and came across a disabled child who was tied to a tree while his parents went to work in the field. The boy was left with a bowl of food and forced to defecate in the radius rope permitted. The school founder, touched by this scene, made it his life’s work to make lives better and futures brighter for these children.
Surely not all disabled children in Kenya are mistreated, but it’s not uncommon to hear stories of them being abandoned, neglected or shut away. Some of these children end up begging on the streets of big cities, making impressive sums which are snatched by their exploitative “handlers.”
It’s not a nice picture, but it should be put in some context.
A disabled child can be a burden to a family living on the margins in a way that those of us in the wealthy world can hardly fathom. This is not a justification, but a simple fact of reality. Many families in the rural areas here survive on the food they grow, and children share in this work — digging, weeding, planting and finally harvesting their food. Children ensure the household functions, walking distances to fetch water and firewood. Children are also a source of social insurance, providing for their parents in old age. If a child is disabled, not only are they unable to make these contributions, but they often require another family member to provide their care. A physically disabled child can financially ruin a family.
Perhaps this is why in some areas physically disabled children have traditionally been thought to be a literal curse. And the mothers who bear them are thought to be cursed as well. But this only adds to their stigma and increases the likelihood of neglect.
Of course, even within this context each family is different. I read an article recently about a man whose wife left him after she bore a son with no arms. After her departure he spent every waking hour caring for the boy, strapping him to his back as he worked the fields, withstanding the mocking of others in doing so. Others give up their lives to provide the 24 hour care that would be provided by a team of para-professionals in the US. And of course, many families who want to seek help find it unavailable and unaffordable.
Still the tide is slowly turning with hard-working, dedicated and idealistic people like those we found at the Nalondo School for the Physically Disabled. And just like their American counterparts, they too are fighting the biggest hindrance (other than poverty) to those with disabilities – stigma.
The school walls are covered in bright freshly painted signs with slogans like “Disability is not inability” and “We do not need sympathy but opportunity.”
The children are entered into regional singing and dancing competitions and last year the took first place. They’ve excelled academically as well. The primary school head teacher proudly displayed their 1st place certificates next to inspirational newspaper articles of people with physical disabilities overcoming great odds.
The school accepts both disabled and non-disabled students, and strives to get a good mix with the goal of reducing the stigma of disabled students by increasing their interaction with others. During our visit we saw all the students mixing freely and had to look closely to see that one student was missing a hand and another walked with a limp. The able bodied students also help with some of the more severely disabled students assisting in everything from their getting dressed to moving around the campus.
It’s an impressive school, one of only a handful of such government-supported schools in the country. But it struggles for money. The dorm rooms are packed, and they don’t have much land. Other schools can raise their fees and send students home when they fail to pay their fees – a common practice. But the principal explained to me that they don’t do that here. If they sent their students home for lack of payment, many of them would not return. They still have to fight with parents to see the value in educating a disabled child.
So, they’ve looked outside for assistance. A British church helped with a meal program and another supported a physical therapy center. They are growing in all the right directions, but in fits and starts. And it’s clear from the children we met that they are making an impact on the root of so much difficulty for disabled children in Kenya – stigma.
But I can’t say this more powerfully than a girl we met at the school who, even leaning on her crutches stood taller than most. She recited a poem for us, forcefully and movingly imploring people to see beyond her disability, telling us convincingly that “disability is not inability.”
How are physical disabilities viewed in your part of the world?
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by our writer in Kenya, Mama Mzungu, who writes at www.mamamzungu.com If you would like to find out more about how you can support this school, please contact her at ksiegal@yahoo dot com.
Photo credits to the author.