Like all children, those with disabilities have many abilities, but are often excluded from society by discrimination and lack of support, leaving them among the most invisible and vulnerable children in the world.
On 30 May, UNICEF launched its flagship report The State of the World's Children 2013: Children with Disabilities. The report brings global attention to the urgent needs of a largely invisible population.
It's been almost 10 years since teachers searched the streets of Bamako for hearing-impaired Malian children, 19 of whom would be their first pupils. Today, the School of Hope is ensuring that its 160 pupils have an education – and a role at the centre of their families.
BAMAKO, Mali, 5 June 2013 – Discrimination against hearing-impaired children is declining in Mali, says Moussa Sanogo, headmaster of the School of Hope in the capital, Bamako. "We started the school in 1994 with 19 pupils whom we, the teachers, found by going out on the streets of Bamako," he says.
"In those days, hearing-impaired children were hidden away, neglected."
Into the centre of the family
"These days," continues Mr. Sanogo, "there are schools like ours in every region of Mali, and this means everyone knows of someone who is deaf. The situation is much improved," he adds.
The school now has 160 pupils, but Mr. Sanogo deals daily with the prejudice and pain that can surround disability. "It is common for the father to blame the child's mother," he says. "I spend time dealing with ructions in families when, in fact, what I want to get across is the importance of not isolating this child, of bringing him or her into the centre of the family."
His message has been picked up loud and clear by Seydou Diarra, an electrician who lives with his wife, Djita, and their six children in the Magnambougou district. Last year, Mr. Diarra attended sign language classes on Saturday mornings at the School of Hope, where his 11-year daughter, Fatoumata, is a pupil.
The Diarra household is adjacent to a busy market. The family share a yard with another family, so there are always a dozen children milling around. The eldest, 15-year-old Wassa, says she and the others look out for Fatoumata.
Asked who her best friend is among her brothers and sisters, Fatoumata points to Bakary, a brother two years her senior. Bakary has picked up some sign language.
Like many poor Malian children, Fatoumata has a range of chores assigned to her. It's a matter of pride in the family that she, like the others, runs errands, does laundry and even sells coconut sweets made by her mother.
The strong bond between Mr. Diarra and Fatoumata is evident. "I do not know why, but even before she became sick, we had a special understanding," he says. "She was only a year old, and she called me 'papa', and she brought me my slippers when I came home from work."
Fatoumata was barely a year old when she fell ill with suspected meningitis and lost her hearing.
The school day begins
Every morning, Mr. Diarra takes his daughter to the School of Hope on the back of his motorbike.
The school's tidy playground and immaculately maintained classrooms are filled with the happy cries of the hearing-impaired children, carrying UNICEF schoolbags. The sign language chattering in the shade of a tree is brought to halt by headmaster Sanogo's dramatic hand-waving.
The children gather around a small garden and sign the national anthem of Mali as the flag is hoisted in silence.
Stepping up vaccination, ensuring rights
Mr. Sanogo says 90 per cent of the pupils at the School of Hope are survivors of meningitis – an inflammation of the protective membranes of the spine and brain. Meningitis vaccination campaigns have been stepped up in recent years.
In 2011, UNICEF reached nearly 11 million Malians under the age of 29. From 2014, meningitis will be included in routine campaigns in the region.
On a visit to the School of Hope, UNICEF Mali Representative Francoise Ackermans called for more to be done to identify disabled children. "The situation in Mali is similar to other developing countries. We do not really know how many disabled children there are."
"Even today, many children with disabilities are hidden or are on the street. Yet, they have the same rights [as all children]. We have to identify them. We have support their families, their communities.
"Children should be at school. They should be able to play together, to grow and to become citizens," she says.