School should be a welcoming and integrated place for the disabled: It is a microcosm of the country we wish to live in

Abigail Fatim Lello

The very fact that little Abigail Fatim Lello goes to a Bridge school in Montserrado County, Liberia and is happily integrated into school life is a success. The little girl has struggled in her community, because she is disabled and finding a school which did not tolerate bullying or discrimination, and gave her the chance to learn in a supportive environment, was a challenge.

All children should be able to attend a school that supports them in this way but for many disabled children this is a far off dream.

As such, this week the  UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) will co-host the first ever Global Disability Summit with the International Disability Alliance; they should be praised for their leadership on this issue. For the first time, the world is convening to discuss what more can be done to ensure that the world and its systems are inclusive, nowhere is this more important than in education.

Sustainable Development Goal fundamentally promotes ‘inclusive and quality education and  lifelong learning opportunities for all’. For many, conversations around SDG4 have had a policy focus on children living in extreme poverty; focussing on those who live in extreme poverty and have to face the additional hurdle of disability seems daunting. The International Development committee (IDC) pressed for a further focus on ensuring that No Child is left Behind during its Inquiry last year and DFID disability framework has responded and the Charter for Change is a tangible action.

Ensuring that as with all children, children with disabilities, have access to a good school, where they can learn is essential; not only for the disabled child but for the community of which they are a part. Children learn from each other and ensuring that they are surrounded with children of differing abilities, tribes, religions and gender is essential for not only their personal development but the development of community cohesion. Making sure that a school is a supportive and friendly environment and that those with disabilities are fully integrated into school life, as at Bridge, is crucially important.

In Liberia, 16 percent of the population have a disability, according to a UNICEF study. Of these, 61 per cent have a mobility disability, 24 per cent are visually impaired, 7 per cent are deaf and 8 per cent are mentally disabled. In essence nearly 800,000 Liberians suffer from a disability, perhaps not surprising for a post conflict country.  Worryingly, especially when the statistics are so large, disability is both a cause and consequence of poverty and people often face significant barriers that prevent them from participating fully in society.

In terms of the impact on education, the World Bank estimates that there are fewer than 10% of children with disabilities attending school in Africa.

This doesn’t have to be the case, as Abigail’s happy face proves.  Despite facing more challenges than most she is thriving and proving that disabled children should never be defined  by their disability.  Although, Abigail was born missing an arm,  it has not hindered her ability to learn. Throughout her childhood she used to get stared at and teased for not being the same as all the other children. Yet, support from her foster parents and her teachers , combined with a fierce determination to succeed, have seen her flourishing at Kendeja Public School, a school managed by Bridge.  She is now doing really well, has made lots of friends and has grown in confidence.

Principal Marthaline Browne is inspired by Abigail, saying: “This semester, she scored an incredible 85 average, beating most of her more ‘able’ classmates. She’s not afraid to get what she wants, I see a bright future for Abigail.”

The eight-year-old is now in the Second Grade and ended this school year with high honors.

The struggle to ensure that children have access to a good education can be challenging enough for most families. For those that live in poverty, choice is both poor and limited.  Compound those complexities with a disability a child’s likelihood of accessing a good education diminishes evermore. Abigail herself lives with her guardians as her parents found it very difficult to provide for her. They say that the arrival of Bridge in their town was a real blessing, not least because she started to learn but because she found her place where her disability was not allowed to define her or the way people treated her.

We need to challenge the way that children with disabilities are treated and often stigmatised. We should praise DFID for taking the lead in this issue and support them in their objectives. We need to make school a welcoming and integrated place, for it is a microcosm of the Liberia we wish to live in.

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