Special Attention for Special Needs

by Sean Sprague

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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.

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Tags: Disabilities HIV/AIDS Daughters of Charity Shashemene School for the Blind