Helping children with disabilities return to school in Turkana

Ensuring every child in Kenya has the opportunity for an educated future

Andrew Brown
Ezra playing football
19 October 2021

As the school day finishes in Lodwar, Turkana, a group of boys runs out onto a sandy football pitch between their classrooms. There is a flash of colour beneath their pink school shirts, which some of them peel off to reveal international football club shirts beneath. They run up and down the pitch with tremendous energy, gesturing at each other. Finally, 13-year-old Ezra, wearing an Atletico Madrid t-shirt, gets a clear shot at the goal. He lines it up and shoots. The ball swerves past the goalkeeper and lands behind the goalpost, kicking up a small cloud of dust as it lands. Ezra throws up his arms in celebration. But there is little or no sound from the players, all of whom are fully or partially deaf.

St Bernadette School for the Deaf provides education for children with hearing impairments, some of whom also have other disabilities. The children come from across Turkana County, including from Kakuma refugee camp, where Ezra lived with his parents. “Life was very hard in the camp,” he explains in sign language. “I had dropped out of school and was living on the street with my parents. We were very poor. I used to beg a lot in the streets. Even getting food and clothes was a problem. I thought a lot about how I could change my life. I decided to go back to school.”

Ezra was found on the streets by a child protection officer from the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), which works with UNICEF on education and child protection in the camp. They soon realized that he was not a refugee. Ezra’s family came from the surrounding area and had moved to the camp in search of work. So LWF arranged for him to come back to school, paying his transport and boarding fees. “My parents were happy for me to go back to school,” Ezra says. “I enjoy being here, my life is much nicer. Now I know how to read and write. I want to stay at school until I’ve finished my education.”

Supporting schools

Elizabeth Achwa is Senior Teacher at St Bernadette School for the Deaf. She says that children with disabilities are often not in school for a range of reasons. “This can include the high poverty level of families who do not have the basic items or resources that these children require,” she says. “There is also a lot of stigma and denial from parents, who don’t want to accept that their children have disabilities and prefer to hide them away from the community.”

Enrolment at the school was also affected by COVID-19, with 84 children attending now, compared to 112 before. “The COVID-19 pandemic impacted us a lot,” Elizabeth adds. “We lost a lot of children who went home during the school closures. Many of the girls disappeared and have still not come back.”

Working with UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, Elizabeth does her best to track down and engage families of children with disabilities in the Lodwar area. “I try to communicate with and sensitize the parents in neighbouring communities,” she says. “I tell them that disability does not mean inability. These children can live a normal life, provided they get a good education. And the schools and institutions are there to cater for their needs.”

In recent years, UNICEF has supported St Bernadette School with teacher training and school supplies, including sanitary pads for girls. Together with the Ministry of Education, UNICEF is also working towards ensuring that every child can attend an inclusive classroom in their local school.

Ezra in his classroom at St Bernadette School for the Deaf
Ezra in his classroom at St Bernadette School for the Deaf

Out of school children

In partnership with Educate A Child, a programme of the Education Above All foundation, UNICEF is supporting the Government of Kenya to bring more children with disabilities back to school, through Operation Come to School phase 2. A baseline survey has recently been conducted in 16 counties to understand the reasons why children, including those with disabilities, are not enrolling or staying in school.

The survey found that there were over 27,500 children living with disabilities who were out of school in the 16 counties, with the highest number in Mandera (10,082), followed by Turkana (4,573) and Garissa (4,317). The reasons cited by respondents included lack of special needs school, teachers or equipment, nomadic and pastoral lifestyles, and lack of assessment and resource centres. Other surveys have also found stigma and discrimination to be a significant barrier.

Next, the project aims to reach 250,000 out of school children in 16 counties, working with community leaders, parents and teachers to bring them back to school.

“Every child has the right to an education and that includes children with disabilities as much as those without,” UNICEF Kenya Chief of Education Marilyn Hoar says. “With the right support, children with disabilities can achieve as much in life as those without. Unfortunately, following the COVID-19 related school closures last year, we have seen more children with disabilities drop out of school. So, this programme is more urgent and important than ever.”

In addition to COVID-19, droughts in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid land (ASAL) counties, including Turkana, are pushing more families into poverty and children out of school. “We want to ensure that all schools are welcoming places for children with disabilities and support poorer families to withstand droughts and economic shocks, including through emergency cash transfer programmes,” Marilyn adds.

Arukudi speaks to UNICEF in a classroom at St Bernadette School for the Deaf
Arukudi speaks to UNICEF in a classroom at St Bernadette School for the Deaf

Nomadic lifestyle

Another child returned to school at St Bernadette is 15-year-old Arukudi. Her parents are nomadic herders and she used to move around with their animals. “Going to school was impossible,” she says. “My parents moved to faraway places looking for pasture and water and I had to follow them. But I was always sad that I was not in school.”

Eventually, a local priest intervened and persuaded Arukudi’s parents to let her go back to school. “He realized I was clever and brought me to this school,” she continues. “My parents were undecided at first but after he spoke to them, they accepted it. I am so happy to be at school. I want to go to college and train to be a nurse, so that I can help sick people.”

Attitudes towards children with disabilities are slowly changing in Turkana, and more children like Ezra and Arukudi are getting the education they deserve. But the twin pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic and droughts driven by climate change are threatening to roll back progress. This makes initiatives like Operation Come to School crucial to ensuring that every child in Kenya – with or without disabilities – has the opportunity for a bright, educated future.

Ezra celebrates after scoring
Ezra celebrates after scoring a goal at St Bernadette School for the Deaf

By Andrew Brown