According to international statistics, around 1 in 7 people globally are estimated to have some form of disability (WHO, 2017), with at least 93 million children living with disabilities (UNICEF, 2013). All of these children have the right to grow, learn and become more independent, but due to numerous barriers, including negative cultural attitudes towards disabilities, many are denied the opportunity to turn this right into a reality by simply being able to go to school.
As an AbleChildAfrica Youth Council member who was lucky enough to be working in Nairobi last year, I jumped at the chance to spend a day in October visiting the Little Rock Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centre – an AbleChildAfrica partner and one of the few schools in Kenya which is paving the way in providing inclusive education. Little Rock has been a partner of AbleChildAfrica since 2006 and this partnership has significantly contributed towards the growth and development of the school. AbleChildAfrica supports Little Rock with their ECD programmes as well as financial management training and mentorship, fundraising, strategic planning and investment in their income generating activities.
Upon my arrival, I was warmly welcomed by founder and CEO Lily Oyare, who gave me a brief history of the centre and its progress in improving children with disabilities access to and quality of education. The journey to founding Little Rock began in 2000 – the year in which Lily, who is a teacher by profession, visited Kibera for the first time on a tour. It was on this visit that Lily was shocked by the amount of children with disabilities she saw who were not in school. Whether they were denied access as a result of needing assistive devices, or because school teachers required more training to support them in the classroom, Lilly knew that if nothing was done many of these children would grow up without the essential skills they needed to succeed in life. This led her and a team of other educators to come up with the idea of establishing an ECD centre, with Little Rock officially opening its doors on 1st October 2003 – ‘Little’ in reference to the children, and ‘Rock’, which refers to one of Lilly’s favourite bible verses.
The programmes run by Little Rock include daily class activities to help pupils learn how to read, write, do maths, and engage in performing arts and sporting activities. Little Rock also runs a day care centre, so that mothers can engage in income generating activities such as dressmaking, jewellery making and farming whilst their children receive free day care. Children with disabilities also have access to a therapy unit, with specialised staff providing physiotherapy and more one-on-one assistance to children with speech difficulties. The day I visited also happened to be the day before their annual graduation day, so I was delighted to see the children busy and having fun practising their musical and dance pieces!
As a result of the excellent programmes Little Rock has provided over the years, enrolment to the centre has increased: In 2004, 101 children were enrolled; today, that figure has grown to 405 pupils including 120 children with disabilities. This means that Little Rock has provided hundreds of pupils with a high quality education and equal start in life, which in turn has helped them go on to get admission into secondary schools and even university.
Despite this progress, Lily emphasised that much more still needed to be done to reduce the dangerous stigma towards children with disabilities. She told me of her many encounters with mothers who had given birth to a child with an impairment, only to be blamed for causing their child’s disability, accused of being ‘cursed’, or even being abandoned by their families. The role that Little Rock plays in the community is therefore so important. Through the centre’s success stories and their advocacy work in the community, Little Rock is able to demystify these myths and demonstrate that disability does not mean inability, all whilst providing a safe place for children to learn, play and grow together.
Visiting Little Rock was a lovely, eye-opening experience. It educated me on the barriers that many disabled children face across the world, as well as the impact that these have on their childhood and transition to adulthood. I was encouraged by the work that educational centres like Little Rock do to help support all children. Much more therefore needs to be done to advocate and support centres such as those that truly change children’s lives.
Many thanks to the Little Rock team and all the children for being such welcoming hosts!