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Sophie Morgan: how perceptions of disability are changing in Africa

Sophie Morgan is an award-winning disability activist and an ambassador for Leonard Cheshire’s international work. This November, she travelled to Kenya to find out more about Leonard Cheshire’s projects. In her first blog for the charity, she details her journey.

As a wheelchair user, I often learn a lot about a country on arrival – whether I want to or not. But a pleasant surprise awaited me when I landed in Nairobi. My chair was still in one piece and an enthusiastic group of ground staff provided prompt and faultless assistance. So far, so good!

Changing attitudes toward disability in Africa

Day one in Nairobi saw us invited to the local office of the Association for Disabled People of Kenya (ADPK). My experiences as a disabled person in Africa have swung between different extremes.

Having made a BBC documentary called The world’s worst place to be disabled?’, examining abuses in human rights towards disabled children and adults in Ghana, it opened my eyes to some of the worst examples of discrimination I’ve ever seen. It left me acutely conscious of the consequences of stigma.

However, having since travelled extensively and discovered that there are always (at least) two sides to every story, I have found that discrimination and ignorance can be found everywhere, and must be put into context.

Within moments of arriving at ADPK, I realised that Kenya was doing something different.

I was shown around a complex buzzing with disability-related activity, meeting people proudly making wheelchairs and prosthetics, physios and charity workers dedicated to changing lives. It was a supportive and mature community of people and an appropriate environment to sit down with some local Disabled Peoples’ Organisations (DPOs).

There were five groups represented, and all had been consulted during the development stage of the i2i (Innovation to Inclusion) programme. This has seen Leonard Cheshire lead a consortium committed to an ambitious objective.

Leonard Cheshire wants to improve the skills and confidence of 10,000 people with disabilities in Kenya and Bangladesh, advance their job prospects, and look to secure suitable roles for them.

The amplification of voices of people with disabilities through DPOs is key to this project and Leonard Cheshire’s work generally. It was fascinating to hear the diverse opinions from Women Challenged to Challenge and other charities representing deaf and blind people and people with albinism.

Ultimately, this DFID-funded initiative seeks to find employment for people with disabilities, and the knowledge, passion and determination of these individuals are the perfect starting point.

The power of social media to fight disablism

I was particularly excited about day two. Back at ADPK, I met Maria Njeri, a true inspiration. One of the original citizen reporters trained by Leonard Cheshire for their 2030 & Counting project, she explained that Kenya had ratified the UNCRPD, but that very little has changed since.

Most disabled people still struggle to get education, training or employment. For many young women, the challenges were heightened by routine discrimination against gender and ability.

When first invited to Kenya to learn about Leonard Cheshire’s work, I wanted to know what I could do to help. Knowing how powerful social media can be, I gave a workshop on how it can be used as a weapon for change.

Young advocates who know how to harness the power of social media can make a huge difference in a country where disabled voices are often misunderstood and marginalised.

We bonded over our own experiences and agreed on the urgent need to shine a light into the darkest corners of the world where young disabled women are hidden…and are hiding.

If we don’t want to leave anyone behind, young, tech-savvy disabled people need to grasp the opportunity to tell these stories and bring duty bearers to account.

Meeting disabled children in Africa

I was eager to travel to Kisumu, in the south-west of the country, for the next part of my trip. Kisumu is the home of Leonard Cheshire’s Girls Education Challenge (GEC) programme and sits next to Lake Victoria.

Funded by DFID, the GEC began in 2014 and I quickly understood the positive impact it’s had with more than 3,000 children (75% of which are girls) supported into education to date.

It’s quickly become recognised as best practice in inclusive education, a shining example that many other countries are looking to emulate. Already the model is being introduced to other countries, from Nepal to Sudan.

Sophie Morgan laughing with a young disabled child in Africa
Sophie Morgan with seven-year-old Anthony Onyango

Meeting Joy Ouma (Programme Manager) and Orpa (Inclusive Education Advisor) was an education in itself. It absolutely inspired me further on the multiple challenges that young disabled women face and how Leonard Cheshire combats them through education.

Myths around disability abound in Africa; mothers can be considered cursed or victims of witchcraft while fathers with disabled children may abandon their families, leaving an extra burden both emotionally and financially. This stigma rips families apart, resulting in young people with disabilities being further ostracised.

Leonard Cheshire’s inclusive education team in Kisumu is backed up by social workers who find these vulnerable children and begin the process of introducing them to education. The resultant care and attention they receive was epitomised by our experience at the Education, Assessment and Resource Centre (EARC) in Kisumu.

Here, children – and parents – receive tailored attention from special needs education (SEN) teachers with different specialities and practical support for life in and out of the classroom. My abiding memory is seeing seven-year-old Anthony Onyango, who attends the Umala Inclusive School in neighbouring Siaya County, being fitted with his first bespoke crutch and prosthetic leg.

To see him smile after taking his first steps unaided brought home the difference being made like nothing else could.

Lives are being changed in Kenya and what’s abundantly clear is that Leonard Cheshire has developed a robust system to support children all the way through their education, right up to university.  We met three young people with disabilities, who, having been through the programme, are settled in higher education and have ambitions of being a social worker, politician and neuroscientist respectively!

Communities are changing disabled people’s lives

Day three saw us remain in Kisumu to meet teachers and parents central to the success of the project. The teachers were wonderful and go over and above their daily duties to support and enable their pupils where, in a school of 1,400, nearly 30% are disabled.

They become ‘beacons’ of communities, a point of contact day and night for those at risk. Children can enter education late in Kenya and are often sexually active while they are still in the school system. Sexual exploitation is common and it’s not unheard of for some to believe raping a disabled girl can be a cure for AIDS.

Many girls, I was told, are ‘defiled’ because they can’t defend themselves. Teachers become a lifeline to ensure these girls get the help they need.

Throughout my time in Kisumu, I was reminded of a tight system, bolstered by skilled, dedicated people who are utterly committed to providing a safety net for some of the most vulnerable people on earth.

But it was a group of Male Mentors who really stood out for me as the most inspiring changemakers I have ever met. They are a group of guardians who have learnt to embrace their daughters instead of shunning them. They support others in their communities by shouldering the burden with the women who often are powerless in their communities.

They are fearless dads who educate their peers and set an example that disability doesn’t mean inability. This is cultural change in action, and for these men, it takes bravery to buck the trend in a patriarchal society.

For many of us reading this it may seem obvious. But having heard repeatedly of the shame that disability affords a father, and after speaking with these men, all I could do was smile and applaud efforts that have added a fascinating layer to Leonard Cheshire’s work in Kisumu.

Access to education, healthcare and employment are universal issues, and much like the UK, Kenya still has a long way to go. Touching down in London to terrible assistance, with a broken chair (eventually) arriving, I was reminded that nowhere is ‘the best place to be disabled’.

We can and must keep learning together.

By Sophie Morgan for Leonard Cheshire

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