NEW YORK, New York — UNESCO reports that with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, children with disabilities are at a greater risk of being further excluded from education as distance learning solutions are not often designed to include them. They are also at risk of disengaging from learning, considering the limitations of remote learning approaches. However, in Sierra Leone, the international organization Sightsavers has not wavered in its efforts to continue helping children with disabilities access education in the country. The Borgen Project spoke with Guy Le Fanu, Sightsavers’ global technical lead for education, and Eric Musa, project officer for education in Sierra Leone, to discuss the organization’s inclusive education projects and how it is further supporting these students during COVID-19.
Inclusive Education in Sierra Leone
Sightsavers first began its inclusive education work in Sierra Leone in 2012, where it piloted an education program in six schools. In 2016, using previously gathered information on the challenges faced by children with disabilities in Sierra Leone, and with the support of the European Union, it launched the Education for All project in 45 schools within the districts of Bombali and Karene. This project ensured more than 800 girls and boys with disabilities can access education.
Eric Musa shares that the project targeted three key areas for inclusion: strengthening the existing education system, enrolling children in schools and improving teachers’ knowledge on disability inclusion in the classroom. The project also included the distribution of learning materials along with sanitation and hygiene kits. Mentors aimed to teach girls with disabilities how to use sanitary pads. These hygiene kits, sanitary products and mentors have been of particular importance in supporting the education of girls with disabilities, explains Musa, as this removes barriers that prevent girls from attending school during menstruation.
Inclusion champions are experienced teachers who have been chosen to participate in a three-year project that promotes inclusive education in schools in Bombali. In addition to training, the educators receive a handbook to help them better understand how to inclusively teach. The guide contains information, ideas and resources to help teachers with inclusive education. This will ensure that no child with a disability is overlooked.
As part of the Education for All project, Sightsavers engaged in the distribution of equipment and medication to further meet the children’s specific needs. For example, the organization has provided mobility aids, glasses and access to large print and medication for managing epilepsy.
The project ended in 2019 and has increased the rates of enrollment and retention in schools.
Education During COVID-19
In 2020, Sightsavers was able to secure further funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery, and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it has continued helping children with disabilities access education. For children to continue their education, Sierra Leone’s government has implemented a national radio teaching program—a model initially developed during the Ebola epidemic. To assist with remote learning, Sightsavers has provided radio sets and batteries to children with disabilities. In addition, teachers who are inclusion champions in their communities are supplied with hand sanitizer and facemasks. At the end of each week, teachers carry out follow-up sessions with the children to “advise them on the lessons taught over the radio.”
The organization has also helped ensure that parents and children are aware of COVID-19 prevention measures. It has distributed 126 handwashing buckets and bowls to children with disabilities and the parents of these children.
The Importance of Community and Accessibility
In local communities, Sightsavers and mothers are further helping children with disabilities access education. The “mothers clubs” develop ways to support the children. Le Fanu recalls visiting a village where mothers were sewing school uniforms for children with disabilities, which “can make all the difference in a child going to school and staying in school.”
Additionally, children with disabilities have difficulty accessing restrooms they can safely use and often have to return home to do so. Guy Le Fanu stresses the importance of having accessible restrooms that are “private, hygienic and sex-segregated.” Sightsavers has constructed some disability accessible toilets but lacks sufficient funding to do this in every school. As such, the organization is looking to model a disability accessible toilet that the government can replicate.
The Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues (SLUDI)
Furthermore, Sightsavers’ projects for helping children with disabilities access education in Sierra Leone have greatly benefited from the continuous advocacy work of local people with disabilities and support from other community members. The Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues (SLUDI) is the main disability rights advocacy organization in the country and has closely worked with Sightsavers to make schools accessible.
At the moment, ”We are working with SLUDI in also ensuring that we continue our lobbying with the government,” said Musa. This will help increase the representation of people with disabilities in schools and other areas of society.
Transforming Education for the Marginalized
An important part of Sightsavers’ efforts in helping children with disabilities access education in Sierra Leone has been working with the government and communities to develop solutions that can be implemented across the country.
Le Fanu explains that Sightsavers works with teacher training colleges in Sierra Leone to educate them on how to include children with disabilities in classrooms. Recently, Sightsavers worked with the Ministry of Technical and Higher Education to draft a curriculum for the training colleges. Similarly, Sightsavers hopes that in the future, it can assist the government in distributing assistive technology to children with disabilities and help the government include them in schools throughout the country.
Sightsavers and its local partners have made significant strides in helping children with disabilities access education in Sierra Leone. As a result, Sightsavers has significantly transformed the academic possibilities of many marginalized children. In spite of COVID-19, Sightsavers continues its advocacy and commitment to help children with disabilities access inclusive education in Sierra Leone.
– Emely Recinos