Limited support for disabled children in northern Uganda leaves many without education
Like many children with severe physical disabilities in rural Uganda, Richard Obwol grew up believing he had been a curse, a physical manifestation of black magic, cast upon his family.
Mr Obwol’s health began to deteriorate when he was five years old and the polio virus spread through his tiny body, paralysing his right leg and left hand.
Desperate to save the youngest of their 10 children, Mr Obwol’s parents did the only thing they thought could help him: they took him to a witch doctor.
“In those days, they used to follow the route of witchcraft,” said Mr Obwol. “They went through some other sources, not medical, to try and bring my energy back. But they failed. I was told I was paralysed and nobody had the hope of me regaining my health, but thank God I regained.”
Even at a young age, Mr Obwol resolved to do whatever he could to continue and complete his education.
“At first, I could not get the walking aids, but I was supporting myself as I could,” said Mr Obwol. “I would just walk while bending.”
When he reached Grade 5, Mr Obwol’s father fashioned him a wooden stick to assist his mobility. After finishing secondary school, the young man enrolled at the Mulago Paramedical School in Kampala, where he was finally given proper elbow crutches and academic support to help complete his diploma in orthopaedic technology.
Now the 27-year-old works as an educational social worker with Cheshire Services Uganda, the only organisation focused on promoting inclusive education and supporting children and young people with disabilities in the district of Amolatar in the northern part of Uganda.
In Amolatar, 21 per cent of the population of more than 147,000 have a disability, including almost 8,500 children, according to CSU. But support for these citizens is limited, at best, non-existent at worst, officials said. Anyone needing rehabilitation services, for example, must travel more than 100 kilometres on mostly dirt roads to reach the district of Lira.
“It is estimated that only nine per cent of children with disabilities of school going age are in school,” said Steve Obote, manager for the Dubai Cares Inclusive Education Project for Children with Disabilities in Amolatar. “And only six out of the nine per cent are moved to the next level, the secondary school.”
Dubai Cares recently awarded Cheshire Services Uganda US$767,134 (Dh2,817,724) to help enrol 500 children with disabilities in 10 mainstream primary schools across Amolatar.
The three-year project will cover the cost of refurbishing the 10 schools to make them accessible to pupils with disabilities, supplying the 500 children with any necessary medical accessibility equipment, scholastic materials, rehabilitation or surgery.
With limited foreign aid targeting special education needs in Uganda, Obote said there is a very high demand for the project.
“People are always coming here seeking support, but the project can only support 500,” said Mr Obote. “It’s only Cheshire Services in Uganda supporting children with disabilities. All other NGOs and CSOs are in the agricultural sector and health, but supporting disability directly, no.”
During a recent program monitoring and evaluation visit to Amolatar, a UAE delegation led by Dubai Cares chief executive Tariq Al Gurg met with some of the project’s recipients, their families and teachers. During the meeting at Alemere Primary School, Mr Al Gurg presented five visually-impaired children with white canes and two others, who were physically disabled, with wheelchairs.
“It is very important for me not be sitting back in Dubai in the office and getting reports to see what is happening here,” Mr Al Gurg said. “It was very important for me to witness this, and also to speak globally about this issue and bring Amolatar and Uganda to the attention of the world, that there is a big issue among the local population that has been disabled.”
James Isiko, chairman of Chershire Services Uganda, said the additional costs associated with special education often deters potential donors.
“Disability is always at the bottom of the ladder, that’s the problem,” said Mr Isiko. “The main thing is that it is very difficult to reach a very big number of children with disabilities, to put them in school, because they have additional costs to go with their education. One, you have to make the school environment accessible, teachers have to be trained to handle children with disabilities, the communities have to accept that these children can and should attend school. So, all that cost goes into a project like this.”
Mr Obwol is the only member of his family to have finished school. When people in his community see him now, they no longer think of him as a curse, he said.
“They understood later because, at last, they saw me succeeding. They see that really I am supporting the family, I’m the only one that people can now see. They understood later.”
Mr Obwol and his wife are expecting their first child in February.