“Focus on what we can do, not on what we cannot”
By Marie-Consolée Mukangendo
MAPUTO, Mozambique, 21 June 2013 - To anyone who meets her, it is immediately clear that Laura is an exceptional child. The sparkle in her eyes, irrepressible energy, and cheeky laughter are disarming. When she smiles, you can't help doing the same.
Her full name is Laura George Machava and she is 16. When Laura was 1, an illness left her with a speech and physical disability, which fortunately has not dented her vivacity one bit.
Laura's story is a sad one, but as she does with most everything, Laura puts a big, sweet smile on it. Pity or regret is just not in her vocabulary.
When I was a baby, I got very ill and was diagnosed with yellow fever. I was in coma in the central hospital of Mavalane in Maputo, she says. By the time I was released from hospital I was paralyzed and unable to get a sound out of my mouth.
My father passed away when I was a baby. My mother always encouraged me to go to school. I remember that she would carry me on her back, and I would go everywhere with her. She was always scared to leave me alone. My mother passed away last year. I now live with my uncle Antonio and the rest of my family, and we survive thanks to the small pension we inherited from my father.
Laura enjoys going to school and says she likes Portuguese, mathematics and natural sciences.
I like going to school a lot. It educates children. To me education is very important because I learn a lot. In return I can educate other children including those older than me.
Unlike Laura, many children with disabilities in Mozambique are deprived of their right to go to school. Children in general have difficulty accessing school, and those with disabilities face even higher barriers, either because of their physical impairment, or because schools are unable to provide the appropriate attention, or the appropriately trained teachers. Special teaching and learning aids are often also too expensive for the large majority of families.
Laura herself has faced some learning challenges, something she herself admits. Luckily, she has been blessed with a patient, caring and supportive teacher who encourages her to learn every step of the way.
When I was in third grade, I was unable to hold a pencil, it would fall constantly, and so I couldn't write. It was very frustrating. But I managed to overcome this, thanks to my teacher Micaele who taught me how to hold the pencil. It took me a year, but in the end, I learned to write. He is very patient. I like him a lot.
Laura is clear about why this trait is so crucial, especially in the realm of education for children like herself.
Some schools do not have the patience to deal with children with disabilities. Some students don't have good intentions for children like me, and we are often left alone. Teachers should help integrate children with disabilities and tell the other schoolchildren that we have the same rights as everyone else, and that those rights need to be respected.
In Mozambique, a new sector strategic plan has seen the Ministry of Education commit to inclusive education. In practice, this has so far translated into the establishment of resource centers for inclusive education in three regions. These are designed to provide boarding facilities for children to alleviate the discomfort of daily travel, given that parents in rural areas rarely can afford daily transportation. While these centers are well-equipped and mandated to promote inclusive education, staff has yet to receive any form of specialized training.
According to estimates from 2002 by the Mozambican association for disabled persons FAMOD, about 1.5 million people live with disability in the country, with 14 percent of children aged 2 to 9 registering some form of disability, according to MICS 2008.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified by Mozambique in January 2012, defines a person with disability to include all those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.
But many of the barriers are in our minds, rather than concrete. Children with disabilities are often victims of stigma and discrimination. They are kept hidden from the public eye as they are considered taboo. In some traditional beliefs, an impaired child is a punishment that is being meted out on the family for some wrongdoing committed by them.
Laura doesn't see it that way.
Children with disabilities should be provided support because we can contribute and help. We shouldn't be pushed aside, she says.
Luckily things are beginning to move in Mozambique, and barriers may slowly with time crumble. A national action plan on disability was developed by the Government in 2006 and passed by the Cabinet Council of Ministers that same year. Mozambique was also chosen to implement the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities (1999-2009). A number of non-governmental organizations are working with the issue of disability, mostly at the community level. But much remains to be done.
To support the Government and other stakeholders, UNICEF Mozambique launched a two-year project, which will support Ministry of Education programmes on inclusive education. The project is also set to reach children with disabilities with concrete help in the form of special bikes and hearing and visual aids. A countrywide advocacy campaign will be launched to raise awareness on the rights of children with disability and to fight stigma and discrimination.
The overall goal of all of these initiatives is to ensure that the rights of children such as Laura are respected at home, in schools and in their communities, and that children are made to feel worthy, develop good self-esteem and self-respect. This in return will allow children to fully develop their potential, to care for their own needs, as well as contribute to society as full-fledged members.
Children with disabilities and their communities would benefit if we all focused on what those children can achieve, rather than on what they cannot.
When I grow up, I want to become a qualified nurse and care for the sick and elderly, Laura says and smiles. I hope to go to university to study. I will study a lot, a lot, a lot, so I can pass the exams.
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