This was the clear cry from the many wonderful and inspiring young people we met at the St. Francis school for the blind in Soroti, Uganda.
Run with help from Britain through the International Inspiration programme, the school is dedicated to giving blind or partially sighted children the skills and opportunity they need to thrive. From cricket to braille reading, the wall in Sister Winifred the headmistress’s office is decorated with an array of academic and sporting trophies. The school embodies the simple mantra that every child is different – and that they should adapt to each individual.
Part of the UK’s Olympic and Paralympic legacy programme and backed by the British Government, International Inspiration is providing vital support to keep the school running. Alongside it’s sister primary school, it is one of the only dedicated schools for the blind in Uganda.
There is no doubt that they are making a tremendous difference to pupils lives. Children have the chance to learn a wide range of academic and life skills. alongside classrooms with braille machines, the children run a turkey farm and grow a range of vegetables. They even sell the turkey eggs for small profit. There is no doubt that their entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well – we were sold and bought the whole batch!
The school provides hope and a head start in life, but it was clear the challenges that remain. They have a recently installed computer lab, but they lack the software that automatically read out text. If you are reading this blog with similar software, you’ll understand how vital it is.
The children also said they were worried about their future when they leave school. They are well aware that the fantastic support, encouragement and equipment – such as braille machines which they have learnt to master so well – are not widely available outside school. Few businesses recognise the incentive or benefit to make changes and adaptations. They are missing a huge untapped resource.
The children were clear about huge social mountain they need to climb. It was heart-wrentching to hear a group of girls describe the daily suspicion and insults their mothers face – everything from being branded a witch, demon or outcast. It is truly saddening that such talented and remarkable children know how hard it is for them to be accepted by the rest of society.
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. Education which is tailored to their needs will give them a chance in life. St. Francis school, with help from Britain, is giving them the skills they need to succeed. But social change takes time. The children we met today have the ability to become Uganda’s next politicians, entrepreneurs or entertainers. In one of the school’s bright classrooms, a boy stood up to address us from behind his Braille machine. He told us how worried he was for his future after school and how difficult it will be for him to get a job. Confident and clearly spoken, he told us how many villagers at home would prefer disabled people to stay at home rather than find employment. They simply cannot accept that disabled people have a valuable contribution to make. I asked him what he wants to do when he finishes school. The answer? A politician. I think that is just what Uganda – and the rest of the world – needs. I wish him the very best of luck.
In the meantime, we must do more to change attitudes and provide a lifeline to disabled people. Earlier in the day we’d seen how a successful safety net programme is giving disabled and vulnerable people in Kaberamaido the chance to escape destitution. Unable to work as much as other members of the community, they can claim a tiny monthly payment to keep their families fed and clothed. This safety and security allows them to create a better life for their families. One women – unable to walk without her rudimentary walking stick – described how she had to support seven members of her family. The payments gave her the chance to invest in seeds to grow. She now has more food and the chance to sell some on for a profit. Her family now have enough to eat and her community can see how productive she can be. none of this would be possible without this support.
Change can happen. Disabled people can contribute to their community and their economy. Education can give them the chance to build a better life and fight social stigma. We must wake up this fact and help create more schools that allow every child to thrive. In the meantime, we must ensure we target our aid towards the poorest and most vulnerable. From what I have seen, I have no doubt that this can make a tremendous difference to the lives of countless disabled people in countries like Uganda.