By Catherine Asego and Benta Abuya
Melody Moraa is a 14-year-old girl from Kibra constituency, who has cerebral palsy: a condition that affects muscle tone, movement and motor skills. She has difficulties in moving around and initially had to crawl on all fours to use the toilet, or play with her friends. Her future seemed bleak as it was virtually impossible for her to lead a normal life at her family home in the Kibra informal settlement. That was until she enrolled at Little Rock Inclusive Early Childhood Development (ECD) center in Kibra. It was there that her hopes for a change from the marginalization she had faced in her community were realized. Melody’s classmates and teachers took it upon themselves to make her school experience more bearable by carrying her around the different facilities, and widening her sunny smile.
Melody’s story reflects the huge challenges confronting people with special needs in Kenya — but also the new opportunities that are gradually becoming available. Schools like Little Rock are at the vanguard in changing perceptions about special needs and responding to them in an inclusive and compassionate manner. But the needs are vast, and the services are few, especially in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Life in the slums is already very challenging for the six in 10 Nairobi residents who live there. Access to basic services such as education and healthcare is a daily struggle. For students with special needs, life is even tougher. Early detection is rare because there are few publicly-funded services available to help families identify and respond to special needs. The Education Assessment and Resource Centers (EARCs) run by the Ministry of Education are usually short of human and financial resources to conduct the necessary assessments. A lack of data on the number of children with special needs living in informal settlements makes it difficult for government to plan to reach them.
Because public schools are already overcrowded, many families in urban slums enroll their children in low-cost private schools. A 2013 study conducted by the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) found that more than 47% of children living in Kenyan slums were enrolled in these schools, usually characterized by temporary structures on small parcels of land with inadequate facilities — which means that they, too, are beyond the reach of students with physical disabilities. Low cost private schools are ineligible for government capitation grants, which prevents them from acquiring the proper tools and equipment needed to make learning easier for special needs students.
The deficits in these schools do not stop with the facilities — an APHRC study in 2013 found that 59% of teachers in six major towns across the country were untrained in basic academic subjects, let alone in the additional areas useful in responding to the particular requirements of special needs learners.
This amounts to double exclusion: not only are young people in urban slums at a disadvantage when it comes to quality education, but if they have special needs, even the facilities available to them are inadequate.
A new community and institutional approach to special needs education is needed. Already-burdened parents need tools and community support to help them care for their children. Investments in special needs education have been widely documented to be smart investments; a 2011 study by the World Bank found that investment in special needs learners can help reduce welfare costs as well as current and future dependence.
That’s why schools like Little Rock are so important to slum-dwellers; they demonstrate that it is possible to accommodate learners with special needs — and even celebrate them. For Melody, attending Little Rock has helped turn her double exclusion into double inclusion, and has helped her to fulfill her potential not only in school but as a community leader and champion of young people like her. Melody will complete her primary schooling in 2016, and is looking forward to joining secondary school. She is also serving as a senator in the Children’s Government of Kenya.
Melody is overcoming the challenges she has faced in her short life, and putting the stigma she has felt from members of her community behind her. A budding advocate of inclusive education for children with special needs, she is winning hearts and minds — and new schoolmates, too, as parents are lining up to enroll their children at Little Rock. Her goal, she says, is to be the best she can be — just like everybody else.