Egide Imanizabayo, 17, is a physically impaired teenager confined to a wheelchair. While many of his age mates have already completed Senior Six, he has just enrolled in P1 at Groupe Scolaire Kabuga Catholique - Rusororo sector, Gasabo district.
The fourth born among five children, has endured a trail of misfortunes and suffering because of being disabled as a result of polio which hit him as a baby.
At the age of seven, Imanizabayo was abandoned by his parents and taken to live with his grandmother in Bugesera because he could not do domestic work like his siblings.
“My grandmother used to send me to the well to fetch water but it used to take me two hours to get there. Eventually, I could no longer walk that distance prompting my grandmother to starve me.
“I could only be given food after complaining to the local leaders,” Imanizabayo recalls with an expression of regret.
And things seemed to turn from bad to worse when Imanizabayo’s grandmother passed on last year. His mother, who is a tailor, took him on again but under cruel conditions. She put him under ‘house arrest’. Imanizabayo was not allowed to get out of the house “so that the neighbours could not know that the family had such a ‘curse’.”
Imanizabayo starts school
Last month, Imanizabayo started school in a miraculous way. A village leader in charge of the disabled people had visited the family and heard someone crying inside the house. The local leader got interested in knowing what the problem was and who it was. Little did he know that the child who was crying due to hunger was a disabled child who falls under him? The local leaders immediately made arrangements to save Imanizabayo. In a few days, Imanizabayo was enrolled in school and was given a wheel chair to ease his movement to school.
“I told the family to stop referring to Imanizabayo as a ‘curse’ or ‘useless’. I advised them that he can learn and achieve big in life,” said Marc Hategekima, the director of GS Kabuga Catholic. Hategekima convinced Imanizabayo’s mother to take her son to school.
Many cases, similar story
This is just one example of how much suffering students with special needs undergo. They face various challenges from their families, neighbours and schools.
Delphine Nikuze, 18, another student living with a disability says she walks for two hours to and from at school. She in Senior Three at GS Kabuga.
“I usually study for one month and then skip class for a week because I have to rest. In the past, my brother used to ride me to school on his bicycle but all this ended when he married three years ago,” Nikuze revealed.
She, however, commended her teachers and classmates for always giving her special attention in order to catch up with the others.
Nikuze adds that even her brothers don’t give her the respect she deserves simply because she cannot accomplish some chores.
What is so frustrating though is when she is publically discriminated against.
“Some people, including our neighbours at home, shun me when I ask them for a ride on their bikes or vehicles,” Nikuze laments. “I am also very aggrieved when people murmur about my ‘small’ legs.”
A visit to various schools by this reporter revealed tales of discrimination in admission of children with disabilities. Many teachers admitted it’s hard to admit the disabled because many schools like facilities to provide the special needs education required by these students.
Some success stories
However, some schools like GS Kabuga are trying to end the stigma against the students living with disability. For instance in 2010, Handicap, an international humanitarian organisation trained five teachers from this school in how to take care of the disabled students, measuring their progress and integrating them within the students’ community. The teachers in turn trained their colleagues causing a positive mind shift in the school and within months, the fruits were there for all to see.
The same year, over 35 students with disabilities (mental and physical) registered to join the school at different levels.
Florence Mukarwego, the teacher of Imanizabayo, also reported remarkable progress in that direction.
“Although Imanizabayo met many challenges when he joined this school, he has managed to fit in well after a lot of counseling,” Mukarwego notes.
She adds that she helps Imanizabayo to reach the blackboard that was lowered for the sake of the disabled, drives him home and assigns two students to take Imanizabayo to and from school regularly.
Groupe Scolaire Kabuga Catholique, according to Mukarwego, gives disabled students all the support they need so as to pass examinations just like the rest of the students.
And as the school director confirms, disability is not inability. He says a disabled student last year got second division in O’level despite the various challenges he had faced.
“His hands used to tremble and could not handle a pen. But when we bought him a laptop, he managed,” said the director.
Advocacy on the rise
The National Council of People with Disability (NCPD), in partnership with Handicap International, the National Union of the Deaf and Voluntary Search Oversees (VSO), is heading the drive to help the community give persons and in particular children living with disabilities a conducive environment.
According to the executive secretary of the commission, Emmanuel Ndayisaba, their problem is cross-cutting. He said the disabled people have generally been neglected and can hardly access most places such as hospitals, churches, taxis, schools and entertainment centres since the facilities to cater for them have not been put in place.
Ndayisaba says since 2010 when they carried out a series of campaigns to remind the community that people with disability need special attention, their plight is but slowly improving. He says some policies have been designed to cater for the disabled people.
In August 2012, for example, the Rwanda Housing Authority (RHA) published a handbook detailing what facilities must be installed in every public building so that everyone (including the disabled) can access it easily.
Ndayisaba also notes that they are working on a sign language dictionary which they hope to launch in 2016.
“After this, we shall request the government to make sign language official and be taught in school right from primary,” said Ndayisaba.
He adds that together with their partners, NCPD has designed audiovisual material to help in teaching sign language.
Ndayisaba, however, notes that unemployment is one of the major challenges affecting the disabled people. He says over 25 disabled graduates have failed to get work and appeals to the government and other employers to give them a chance to earn.
In a move to make the disabled students more competitive in the job market, NCPD plans to buy for them computers equipped with audio software in order to keep them updated.
NCPD also suggests that the ministry of education gives one laptop to every disabled child in school.
Currently, the number of the students with disabilities is not known, but the four schools that are charged with training disabled children have registered over 3,700 children.
The policy of inclusive education suggests that children with disability should be integrated in school with others so that they do not feel lonely.
What you think about the disabled
Rugwe Richard, a father of two
As long as that child has my blood running in his body, he will always loved despite his physical appearance. I have to love and protect all my children without favour. Mind you, some people have looked for a child for years and failed.
Claire Mugisha, a student at Martyrs SS
Actually at my school, the disabled students are given more attention than the rest of the students. However, if I am blessed with one, I would be happy and thank God for him or her. The government has put in place strong policies to cater for the needs of the disabled students.