Last December, my staff and I visited the Heroes Day Care Centre (APEH) for children with severe disabilities in Gikondo, Kigali. Our aim was to help spread some holiday cheer while spending quality time with the people we serve. In March 2019, the team also visited the Blessing School for the visually impaired (BVSI), which is located in Musanze District. The school provides education to children with visual impairment, particularly children from financially challenged families.
The visits were a great opportunity for our team to reflect further on why we do the work we do; to see the people whose lives are positively impacted by our efforts. It was also about understanding why it is important for us to do our jobs faster, more efficiently and more effectively.
The APEH centre serves 30 children and was started in 2014 by a mother who has a child with a severe disability. BSVI has 5 primary classrooms with 32 students; it was created by Bosco, a father who has a son with visual impairment and could not find a school to accommodate the needs of his child. What Annonciata and Bosco as well as the teachers, parents and caregivers are doing at these schools is nothing short of a miracle. It is a genuine labour of love - providing comfort, education, meals, care and hope to all these children.
Many of the children have severe disabilities and will likely never be able to enjoy the same quality of life that most of us take for granted. But all of them can, with a bit of help, see real improvements in their standard of living.
This is also true for many people living with some form of disability in our societies. It is important to realize that disability is not equal to inability. Having a disability does not mean one is unable to have a good quality of life or participate in their society. In fact, with some support, most people with disability can enjoy a full and dignified life. Sometimes all they need is a ramp to enable them to better access a building or a vehicle. Sometimes it is a simple technology that can facilitate access to a bank or an ATM. Sometimes it is a low-cost aid that enables them to better see or hear. Most of the time, it is a smile which shows that we care about, respect and value them. Many lives can be enriched, and many persons can better realize their potential with a little support from the rest of society. Think of Stephen Hawking, regarded as one of the greatest physicists of our time. His ground-breaking work in physics and cosmology, his books, and his lectures have helped to make science accessible to almost everyone. Hawking was diagnosed with a motor neurone disease - a crippling condition - from the age of 21. However, with support, he was able to achieve things few of us would have thought possible for someone with his degree of physical disability. It makes you wonder: would he have been able to achieve as much if he were very poor or living in a lesser developed country without much support?
For sure, there are many organisations –faith-based organizations, civil society, public and private organizations – that are working with groups of people living with disability. This is important work and I applaud these persons and organisations whose efforts are often unacknowledged. However, the truth is that not enough is being done, and for every one Stephen Hawking who receives support, there are probably 100 others who do not. Persons with disability often live on the outskirts of our societies, and their interests, voices, needs, and rights are seldom addressed. This is a global challenge, even in more developed countries.
This is why UNDP is supporting APEH, BSVI, and other organisations that assist people with disability through our CSO Programme, implemented in partnership with the Rwanda Governance Board. In addition, we have recently launched a broader initiative to bring a wide range of public, private, and not-for-profit partners together to work with and help address the challenges faced by our children, sisters and brothers with disability. Much more needs to be done to expand the existing services provided to people with disability. This is a call to strengthen collaboration and partnership.
The older lady with a pink shirt seated and holding a child : Roselyn Sinemani, Deputy Country Director/ Operations -UNDP she was holding a child while UNDP staff visited Heroes Day Care Centre ( APEH) for children with severe disabilities.
With this call for collaboration, it is important to acknowledge that what people living with disabilities need, first and foremost, is neither our money nor our pity. What they need, first, is to be treated with respect as human beings. They need to be treated with dignity. And yes, they need everyone to respect their fundamental rights.
I am pleased to see the steps already taken by the Government of Rwanda to address the rights and needs of people living with disability, including establishing an institutional framework though MINALOC and the National Council on People with Disability. They have also promulgated national laws such as Law Nº 01/2007 relating to the protection of Persons with Disabilities in general and Nº02/2007 on the Protection of Former War Combatants with Disabilities. Persons with disabilities are included in key decision-making bodies such as the Parliament and Local Government Councils. Currently, the government is in the process of reviewing the above-mentioned laws to ensure that the national legislative framework complies with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which was ratified by Rwanda in 2008. Several national strategies and programs including the national strategy on financial inclusion are also being revised to address the needs of persons with disability.
But more needs to change, and not just within government, but also within the private sector and our own individual households. People often like to talk about the need for “political will” for things to change in society. I like to focus on “personal will” - our own readiness to adjust and take action. Changing the world around us requires us to change something about ourselves. That is where it starts. And the fact is, most of us go about our daily lives never thinking much about the lives of these persons in our societies. We have spent little time with them, have few ideas about how they live, and how they get by from day to day. We know little about the struggles many of them face, and the ways in which they try to overcome these struggles. But it is when we take the time to sit with a little girl or a little boy with a disability, and watch him/her smile, breathe, eat, and play, that is when we recognise that the same God that lives inside us also lives inside them. They are people, children of the same God many of us serve.
Children of Hillside Hope, School for the visually impaired located in Musanze.
So, it does not need to be Christmas, International Albinism Awareness Day, International Day of People with Disabilities, or any special day for us to remember these Children of God. We should take time, starting today, to learn more about them, about their lives, their hopes, and dreams. And wherever we work, we should become advocates for their rights.
Please watch our video at https://youtu.be/48D1w77nGno, then give us a call, send us an email, or visit our offices to find out more about how you can contribute to the empowerment of persons with disabilities. Together we can build “The World We Want”.