“When you focus on someone’s disability, you’ll overlook their abilities, beauty and uniqueness. Once you learn to accept and love them for who they are, you subconsciously learn to love yourself unconditionally.” – Yvonne Pierre, The Day My Soul Cried: A Memoir
History teaches us that people living with disabilities were often mistreated and in the absolute worst-case scenarios not allowed to live.
The ancient Greeks and Romans, routinely killed or abandoned infants with disabilities while those with mental health issues were owned by wealthy Romans for their amusement as court jesters.
In some African cultures, children born with disabilities were perceived as bewitched or their families as being cursed and punished for ancestral misdeeds. Children born with disabilities started their existence being discriminated against, effectively hindering any chance they would have had towards leading a normal life. In the old days, children with disabilities would be kept indoors away from prying eyes, often denied access to medical care and interaction with society. Sometimes abused and mistreated, these children would rarely reach adulthood. In some instances, their families would be ostracized from their communities or chased out of the village so as not to affect the rest of the community.
Sadly, some of these beliefs and practices still persist to this day. For example, in parts of East Africa, children born with albinism are often stigmatized and blamed for natural disasters like famine, drought or locust invasions, while superstition s that their body parts can be used to make charms and portions put them at risk. It is not unusual to see special needs children being exploited by their caregivers who have them begging in the streets.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are some cultures where children born with disabilities are revered. The view is that any evil or wrongdoing has already been visited upon this one child and the rest of the community has thus been spared.
Discrimination of these special needs children means denial to opportunities such as education, employment or a meaningful role in society. If these children do not have a place in their own families or communities, then how can they find a place in society?
The progress made in recent years has been heartening and today the rights of children living with disabilities is enshrined in the country’s constitution. However, there is still a lot of progress to be made, particularly in some rural communities where deep-seated cultural beliefs and poverty holds this group of children back.
Located in Mbooni West, Kyangoma Special Needs School, provides a safe oasis for children with learning disabilities and those living with physical incapacities. Here they have access to medical care, opportunities to learn social skills by interacting with each other and more importantly how to take care of themselves. They are also exposed to literacy classes, arts and crafts lessons and vocational training.
Here it is ok to be different, to be slower to kick a ball around, to be wheelchair bound or even to need extra attention and help getting dressed and with other personal care activities that we take for granted. Here being different is recognized and celebrated.
In a region rife with cultural beliefs and practices regarding children with disabilities, seeing the children in a setting that allows them the opportunity to lead a normal life and have important social connections is encouraging.
Here most will have their first interactions with a community outside of their family, form their first bonds of friendship, learn to care for someone other than themselves and find a place for themselves in society.
At Amara Charitable Trust, we understand how fundamental play time is to all children which is why we installed playground equipment at the school. For special needs children, playtime affords them certain freedoms to explore and develop social, communication and physical skills during play.
Their pure unadulterated joy is infectious and how could it not be. When you look beyond their disability, they are just like any other child, or maybe not as there is something special in their being different because every achievement or challenge, they overcome is a milestone to be celebrated.
Our partnership with the school dates back to 2013 and together with likeminded donors have supported the school by improving existing facilities as well as providing learning materials, mobility aids, facilities to enhance their experience at the school and access to healthcare.
It is important for every child to have access to a good education or training that will guarantee them some form of independence and enhance their own self-worth and build confidence.
Amara Charitable Trust through its Education Fund Program offers selected children an opportunity to transition into a mainstream techinical college and receive training that will start them on the road towards self-reliance and some independence. In 2021, we enrolled five students into Utangwa Youth Polythenic and a further nine were enrolled in January 2023.
Utungwa Youth Polytechnic has been amazing in accepting these special needs children and guiding their training. They will take longer than their peers to complete their courses but that is OK. The fact that a year on, they have stayed the course is enough for us to continue our support of their education.
At a recent visit to Utangwa, it was encouraging to see how much our first batch of five students had grown in confidence, were learning a skill and that their peers and teachers had accepted them but most importantly, to hear that one of the students, had over the holidays, found work in a tailoring shop in the local market. Hearing her story is all the motivation we need to create more opportunities for the special needs students through our Education Fund Program.
It will be difficult to change cultural beliefs in some communities, but we have learnt that all these young people sometimes need, is to be seen, to be heard and have someone see beyond their disabilities and give them an opportunity to transform their own lives. They do not see themselves as victims so we should never make the mistake of putting them in that box – to do so would be doing them a disservice.
I often speak about the privilege we have to be able to go into these communities and interact and learn from them. This was brought to the forefront during a visit to Kyangoma Special Needs School when we carried out interviews. The young people wanted nothing more than an opportunity to make their lives better – what a privilege it is to be part of their story.