ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Special Attention for Special Needs

Helping children with disabilities in Ethiopia

Three days after she was born, Meseret was struck blind. She spent much of her early childhood locked in her room; her parents did not know what to do with her. But a few years ago, Meseret’s family found out about the Shashemene School for the Blind, run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, and decided that Meseret would be happier there than at home.

The school lies within a large, gated compound – a sanctuary in Shashemene, a bustling Ethiopian town of 50,000. It was here that Meseret, now 12, learned Braille. And it was here that she first came to understand that her life, like those of the other 120 blind students enrolled in the school, could be meaningful.

The educational opportunities afforded the average Ethiopian child are, by Western standards, woefully inadequate. Ethiopia is one of the sub-Saharan countries with the lowest rates of school enrollment for children, according to a September 2006 report by the International Save the Children Alliance. In recent years, the government has made education its top priority and is committed to meeting the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals for education: primary school completion for all children. However, students with special needs often are left behind.

According to a joint Ethiopian, Irish and Swedish report filed in 2001, “accepted international norms suggest that 10 percent to 15 percent of any school-going population exhibit some degree of special education needs. As such, about 74,000 to 110,000 primary school children in Ethiopia are in need of extra help.” But, the report concluded, “only a small percent of this total are in special schools.”

“Given the government’s limited resources, there are very few programs for children with special needs,” said Gerald Jones, CNEWA’s deputy regional director for Ethiopia.

Thus, the task of educating those with special needs falls on religious institutions and nongovernmental organizations.

“When they leave here, they hopefully have some basic skills,” said Sister Mary Mitchell, who runs a Daughters of Charity center for the learning disabled in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. The program, which has 15 children, operates out of St. Mary High School.

“The contact they have with the high school students is good for our kids,” Sister Mary said. “One of our aims is to help these children integrate into society. In the past their parents kept them at home, isolated from society.”

However, it is not social stigmatization that keeps those with special needs apart; it is alack of opportunities. “There are a lot of blind and disabled people in Ethiopia,” Mr. Jones said. “There’s no stigma associated with a disability here any more than anywhere else in the world. But at the same time, this is a poor country, and when a family has a child with special needs that places a large financial burden on them. That’s why educating these children is so important, so that they can earn a living and contribute.”

This has been the Shashemene School’s mission since its creation in 1981, said the school’s principal, Sister Mary Jacintha. It is one of five schools – only one of which is state-run – for the blind in Ethiopia and attracts students from all over the country.

At this residential school, all of the children learn to read Braille and to type it using special typewriters. The school has a well-stocked Braille library. Though there are no high schools for the blind in Ethiopia, many Shashemene School graduates attend regular schools, where they study alongside students with sight, using special Braille materials.

Operating on a budget of $55,000, much of which comes from CNEWA donors, the school not only provides education but medical services. Each year an ophthalmologist arranges screenings and operations. This is a luxury in Ethiopia, where there are only 76 ophthalmologists, 65 of whom live in Addis Ababa, according to Orbis, an international agency that works to reduce blindness. (Nearly one million of Ethiopia’s 79 million citizens are blind. Corneal conditions, often caused from measles or Vitamin A deficiency, are the main causes of blindness in Ethiopia.)

The school, open to the blind from any religious background, covers the children’s expenses through sixth grade and gives full or partial support to those in higher studies. Aside from studying, the children participate in numerous activities.

“We write poems and also perform dramas, like Christmas plays,” said Shimba, 14, who cannot remember when she became blind. She came to Shashemene in the third grade, after the previous school for the blind she was attending shut down. “I also like to make handicrafts,” she said, “especially knitting.”

Sister Mary Jacintha, the principal, is from Kerala, India. She has spent 42 years in Ethiopia and is proud of her students, about 60 of whom have received college diplomas. Some 40 more are poised to do so in the next few years.

Back in Addis Ababa, another child, 10-year-old Bekalu, suffers from myopia. But in his case, the solution was simple: a pair of glasses provided by another Daughters of Charity program, the Urban Development Project of Kabele 18. (Kabele is the smallest political geographic unit in Ethiopia, akin to a district.)

Kabele 18 is impoverished even by Ethiopian standards. Sheep and cows ramble down the mud streets, past the ramshackle huts of the migrants who have come from rural areas in search of jobs in the capital.

Unlike the center for the disabled or the Shashemene School, the Kabele 18 project tackles a wide range of problems. “We work on improving the physical infrastructure, improving roads and sewage,” said Sister Brenda, who moved to Ethiopia 25 years ago from the Philippines. “We work with the young and elderly, with those with H.I.V. and AIDS and with the disabled. We treat blindness and care for people who are sick.”

Nigat Gezhane, a physiotherapist trained in Cuba, was attending an injured boy with a fracture in the program’s treatment center – a collection of converted shipping containers. “The main problem we’re dealing with is cerebral palsy,” she said, “but we treat many birth defects and other deformities.”

Nigat was assisted by Mekonnen Manaye, 24, a former patient. He lost the use of one of his legs in a childhood accident. “I’m one of 10 community-based rehabilitation workers and was originally a beneficiary here,” he said. “This is a very good place.”

The work at Kabele 18 – and at Shashemene and many other charitable institutions – never ends. But for all the work such institutions do, there is always more to be done. The Daughters of Charity working in Ethiopia know this better than anyone. As Sister Mary Jacintha said of her 42 years of service in Ethiopia: “Jesus didn’t draw up any contract, only I know that I must stay.”

This is photojournalist Sean Sprague’s 50th contribution to ONE magazine.

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