As a person with a disability, I know firsthand what it means to live a life of segregation. And I know the feeling of being discriminated against and unaccepted because of one’s abilities. Having experienced those feelings, it is more than a pleasure to be part of ChildFund’s mission to support children with disability.
Children with disability are not enjoying the same privileges as their counterparts, nor are they receiving equal treatment. Neglect, abandonment and discrimination are among the injustices they face.
In my role as inclusive programming specialist at ChildFund Ethiopia, I can relate to these challenges because I have faced them myself. As a child who came from an undeveloped rural village, if I were not admitted to a special school for the blind supported by CBM, there was no possibility for me to get an education and prepare for independent adulthood living. Even nowadays, access to education is a challenge for many children. “Only 3.2% of children with disabilities are in school,” according to the 2013 Ethiopian Ministry of Education report.
Finding educational materials in accessible formats, the absolute inaccessibility of the built environment, finding familial care as a child separated from their parents to attend special needs/inclusive schools in towns far from their villages, coping with the economic constraints to finance their living and education costs, and the negative attitude of the community that affect one’s own self-confidence and development are some of the challenges students with disability face in accessing education.
In my situation, instead of focusing on what I could not do, I fought for my future by focusing on what I could do. It demanded a lot of effort but eventually I finished high school, attended university and received my Master of Science degree as a sociologist. Now I tell the children we work with: “If I can succeed, so can you!”
Today I am part of the Yekokeb Berhan Program for Highly Vulnerable Children in Ethiopia that is funded by USAID. ChildFund, in partnership with Pact Ethiopia and Family Health International 360, is the technical lead organisation in this program, which is committed to providing high-quality, age-appropriate, inclusive services for all children.
The program ensures that more than 500,000 highly vulnerable children throughout Ethiopia are going to school, growing healthier and getting the psychosocial care they may need. We initiate strategies to provide equitable access to services such as education, healthcare and economic strengthening opportunities, and use specialised techniques that foster participation of excluded individuals or groups within the program.
We also ensure that all excluded children are given proper attention and equal opportunity for participation in every aspect of the project. For instance, our local implementing partner, Sheger Child and Family Charitable Society, has done a great job coordinating care from government health, education and other organisations. They have arranged for two children to get leg braces, identified a local resource that gave glasses to a visually impaired child, and have been promised a wheelchair for a boy who currently spends all his time in bed. Sheger volunteers are also following up with one family that made the commitment to construct a small ramp so their daughter with multiple disabilities can easily spend time outside, and with another child who has physical disability and committed to doing simple exercises to retain as much use of his arm and shoulder as possible.
But it’s not just about medical support. Yekokeb Berhan has prepared a Directory of Services for Children with Special Needs – the first of its kind in Ethiopia, providing information on schools and other resources for children living with disability across the country. We have also trained staff on how to identify and remove barriers for participation, what exclusion/inclusion means and the role every one of us has to play in fighting exclusion in different aspects of life.
Perhaps most importantly, our staff offer encouragement and advice to the children they meet, and counsel caregivers and volunteers about what else they can do to build each child’s self-confidence and maximise their opportunities for success. “Rather than be over-protective,” they advise, “show your love by celebrating your children’s successes and encouraging them to try things on their own.”
Working with a program that has this much impact in reducing the challenges faced by highly vulnerable children gives me great personal and professional satisfaction. Each of us is learning from the other’s experience. We are making progress by working together.
It is my vision to see my fellow citizens lead a life free from discrimination and poverty. If we truly have a child’s best interest in mind, we must not fail to include children with disability. They deserve to have the opportunity to grow, develop and enjoy their childhood by exercising the same rights as everyone. Institutional, environmental and attitudinal barriers that hinder their full, equal and effective participation in society have to be removed. Most importantly, the children themselves have to be given the opportunity to participate actively in processes that will affect them.
ChildFund Australia is a partner of the End the Cycle campaign, a community awareness initiative promoting the human rights and empowerment of people with disability living in the world’s poorest countries.