I first met Von Shant Shan while visiting the Yangon School for Blinds, 30 minutes from Yangon's busy downtown area. Walking past the school building, I noticed several young children playing together in the schoolyard. Then, as I approached the classrooms, I saw Von Shant Shan, a young girl with a beautiful smile. She was sitting in the corner of her classroom, intently focused on her drawing.
I introduced myself to Von Shant Shan, and we quickly started a conversation. Von Shant Shan is an energetic and bright 8-year-old who loves school. She enjoys drawing and playing musical instruments and loves to fly kites.
I also spoke to her teacher, Mar Khawm, who told me about Von Shant Shan's progress in school. The teacher's pride and excitement were palpable as she talked about Vont Shan. "I face no difficulties teaching her as she is bright and follows the lessons," said Mar Khawm. However, Mar Khawm also stressed the challenges children with disabilities face in Myanmar and the importance of quality, inclusive educational opportunities for all children.
Von Shant Shan and her parents are visually impaired and only her younger sister is sighted. Her parents, who are massage therapists, said they are happy their daughter has access to more educational opportunities than they did.
In Myanmar, my home country, many children with disabilities, like Von Shant Shan, are out of school and lack the support they need to learn at home. My colleague May Thet Thet Oo, the UNICEF education officer specialising in Early Childhood Care and Development, also witnesses this in her work. "Only a handful of schools, concentrated in major cities, provide education for children with disabilities. And unfortunately, some parents know little about raising a child with disabilities and struggle with their children's development," shared May Thet Thet Oo.
In 2020, roughly 6.7 per cent of Myanmar's estimated 55 million inhabitants, equivalent to 3.6 million people, had a disability. Sadly, this population is amongst the most marginalized in the country. Worldwide, at least 1 billion people have a disability, of which almost 240 million are children. In Myanmar, children with disabilities are especially vulnerable in times of crisis, as witnessed recently during the COVID-19 pandemic, subsequent school closures, and the ongoing conflict.
May Thet Thet Oo also told me about the UNICEF project, which involves producing storybooks tailored for children with disabilities aged 4 to 8 and available in multiple accessible formats, including audio and visual, to support children's learning preferences and needs.
For example, children with visual impairments and other learning difficulties can benefit from the audio component. In contrast, children with hearing impairments can follow the stories with colourful pictures. The books are also ideal for younger readers. Moreover, the digital format helps children with motor difficulties engage with the books independently or with minimal assistance and reinforces technology skills for all children. The storybooks are also helpful for older children with a lower literacy level.
According to May Thet Thet Oo the children were passionately invested in the project. "Children's participation in the project also boosts their self-confidence," shared May Thet Thet Oo, and I could not agree more. She added, "the stories relay important messages, such as friendship, kindness, and sharing. Since Myanmar is a union state of many ethnicities, we want to teach them about coexistence and peace."
To date, UNICEF has produced 11 of the targeted 44 storybooks, which we will share through social media channels, the Myanmar Information Management Unit website, and the Learning Passport Platform, a mobile online and offline tech platform that allows children to learn outside the classroom.
Once the storybooks are all produced, May Thet Thet Thet Oo told me UNICEF plans to scale up the project and train teachers working at schools for children with disabilities to use the books. She also highlighted that these books could have a tangible impact on the lives of children with disabilities. "Some children were confined to their homes their whole lives," she pointed out. "These storybooks could provide a window to the world around them," concluded a hopeful May Thet Thet Thet Oo.
Saw Wai Moe is a Communication Officer at UNICEF, Myanmar.