The Challenges Facing Children with Disabilities in Rwanda
By Anjan Sundaram
August 2011: Five years ago, students with disabilities at Murama Child Friendly School, in Rwanda’s southern Bugasera district, felt isolated from their classmates, unable to participate in even a simple game of hide-and-seek or football. Today, thanks to a better understanding of their special needs, there have been some changes.
Today, for instance, students play “sit-ball,” a version of volleyball where the players sit so that all students can appreciate the difficulties faced by students or even adults who have no limbs or problems running or walking.
‘I have a problem with my foot,’ explains Josué Niyilema, a 13-year-old student at Murama. “Before I could never play sports because the boys always made fun of me, limping, but with ‘sit ball’ everyone is like me and can understand what I go through.”
A recent national census on people living with disabilities found that despite improvements in national legislation, people and especially children who live with disabilities face great discrimination and stigma in Rwanda. They are often hidden and treated as outcasts, particularly if their disability is severe.
UNICEF in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and its partners is trying to change these perceptions, particular in schools, by training teachers to be more sensitive and better able to cater to the special needs of children with disabilities.
“Ever since we received training on how to cater to children like Josué, I think we have become a better school; I don’t think we are still prepared to cater to all the different disabilities we see, such as learning, speech and hearing challenges, but at least this is a beginning,” says Jean-Damas Niyoyiboka, a teacher at Murama.
“We can only do what is possible with what we have; that is why we have put in place peer and community mentoring initiatives to bring slow and fast learners together and at least sensitize other students on the importance of inclusion,” he adds.
Inclusion, in fact, is one of the key elements of a child friendly school – a model adopted by Rwanda’s government – with the support of UNICEF – to turn all schools in the country into models of quality education – where children learn in healthy, welcoming, inclusive and empowering environments.
Murama is one of a very few schools in the country to have a Special Needs Education Coordinator, who cares for the special requirements of students who have hearing or speaking difficulties. The School District has also decided to waive lunch and supply expenses for children who live with disabilities as an incentive to keep them in school.
But the challenges ahead are many.
“There is much work to be done for children with disabilities,” says Hugh Delaney, UNICEF’s Education Policy Advisor. “It will take a change in attitudes, additional capacity and nationwide institutional support to ensure that students who live with disabilities have the care and support that they require. But I know the Government of Rwanda is committed to ensuring that schools are inclusive places of learning and I know that we at UNICEF will do whatever we can to support a reform process so that all the children of Rwanda, no matter what disability they may have, have equal access and special attention, to succeed.”