Viola Vaughn on Educating Children with Disabilities in Senegal


DAKAR, Senegal — Dr. Viola Vaughn is an educator and consultant with a multidecade career in humanitarian activism across Africa. Based in Dakar, Senegal since the early 2000s, she founded the Women’s Health Education and Prevention Strategies Alliance (WHEPSA). She did this in order to launch the 10,000 Girls program to educate Senegalese women and girls who were at risk of falling out of the education system. However, since 2010, she has worked in the remote south-eastern Kedougou region of Senegal. Partially as a result of its remoteness, Kedougou experiences among the most poverty and malnutrition of any region in Senegal. Here Dr. Vaughn seeks to improve access to education for children with disabilities. While educating children with disabilities was not her original goal, it has become her mission.

Working with Disabled Children

Dr. Vaughn recently told The Borgen Project that when she moved to Dakar she had no intention of launching a humanitarian program to educate thousands of Senegalese girls. Similarly, she did not intend on improving access to education for disabled children when she moved to Kedougou. “I moved to Kedougou because it was the area where there was a group of girls who came and told me that they had never finished primary school. I started working with the girls here [in Kedougou]. What happened was that then they started bringing in another group of kids I had never concentrated on before, kids that were disabled. I had never concentrated on disabled children before.”

According to Dr. Vaughn, many more schools had adopted the core principles of her 10,000 Girls program by this point. Therefore, they were able to offer far more support and resources outside of the classroom. As a result, she felt comfortable transitioning into something different. “What I’m doing is trying to get the local schools to develop an inclusive education program where the kids can stay in their own communities and go to the local schools.”

Difficulties with Educating Children with Disabilities

Dr. Vaughn went on to describe some of the unique difficulties involved with this kind of work. “First of all, you have to get the parents to realize that the child is not stupid, that the child can learn. Most people think that if a child can’t talk they have some kind of intellectual disability, or if they can’t hear they can’t learn, or if they can’t see they can’t do anything. You have to get rid of the prejudice of the parents against their own children.” The stigma around disabilities both mental and physical is widespread in Senegal and occurs even in the diverse and vibrant capital city of Dakar. Such prejudices only tend to get stronger in rural areas, far from the facilities and professionals of the city.

Dr. Vaughn highlighted the importance of convincing the parents of their child’s potential to succeed. She says that she helped accomplish this by bringing in disabled people from Dakar who had graduated from university and gone on to successful careers. This showed the parents that their children still had a chance to succeed in life.

“So my first group of kids is dealing with kids who can’t speak or they don’t hear or they don’t hear well. The parents were shocked to find out that these kids could learn to read and write. Not only were the parents shocked, but in this area, most of the teachers were shocked. In Dakar where they have inclusive education schools, they see this all the time. But I live twelve hours out of Dakar off a broken road, so there are not many advantages people have out here besides the beauty and tranquillity and the wonders of Allah.”

Social Stigma is a Significant Barrier

Dr. Vaughn originally moved to Kedougou in 2010 but says she has been working with educating this group of disabled children for the past two years. She received a grant from UNICEF that gave her the resources to work with 27 local villages, and from those villages, she identified a group of 79 children.

She believes that there are more children she could work with but social stigma makes her work more difficult. “People don’t show you their kids if they’re disabled. There’s still a lot of prejudice about that…I had to get a medical certification that they were able to go to school. Only 42 of the kids showed up because most people are totally afraid of doctors… Of the 42 that we examined, there were only 15 that the doctors deemed able to go to school because these children had never had any kind of healthcare and there were all kinds of things that needed to be corrected.”

Although the number of children she has been able to work with has been severely limited, Dr. Vaughn says she has already seen tremendous success and improvement. “What has shocked everybody is that our children are doing better than the regular kids that can hear and speak and do everything else.” Thus proving that a little extra help can go a long way towards educating children with disabilities.

Franklin Nossiter
Photo: Flickr


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