3rd World countries often lack basic education on health, nutrition, and mental or physical illnesses. This often results in many myths and theories about why kids are born with disabilities. Many families are constantly asking why their kids are disabled. Due to the lack of education ideas exist here that kids are disabled because their parents were evil people or that their child was possessed by the devil and that is the cause of their disability. In most cases we have seen here in Tanzania families often feel ashamed, depressed, and embarrassed about their child’s disability due to the lack of general understanding and they are often craving any type of help. They yearn for any understanding of why their child is disabled, how to help their child, where to go for support, and what to do.
As a special education teacher I have worked with many families of kids with a wide varieties of disabilities teaching in America, England and Tanzania. Although each country offered it’s own challenges, I have found that in the 3rd world there are very little supports (if any) and families are left with no where to go. Schools do not accept all children although there are laws requiring them too. The very few special needs classroom teachers are given absolutely no resources (not even classrooms) and very little training. Trained special needs teachers are assigned to schools and expected to build special needs programs in their first year of teaching which leads to many teachers not admitting they have special needs training. Hospitals do not always know how to deal with children of special needs and as a results families wait long hours in hospitals. This has resulted in deaths simply due to lack of services. Many kids are often diagnosed with either Downs Syndrome or Mental Retardation just because knowledge of any other disabilities is very limited. Services like occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy exist but only in very small amounts and for only those that have money to pay for them. (There are only 30 OT’s in all of Tanzania) All in all, students with disabilities are not able to access education, healthcare, and services needed to help them function within the society they live and therefore end up begging on the streets, locked away in houses, or dying at very early ages.
The last few weeks we have dedicated our time here to building relationships with organizations that support families with disabilities. We have been lucky enough to meet some amazing people through an organization called Building a Caring Community (BCC). This organization realized that families lacked services and worked to create a way to help provide families with some help. They have 11 centers throughout Moshi area and they employ and train mothers of children to work at the centers. This program supports about 230 children each year in this area and is one of the first programs of it’s kind that we have seen working to support families and kids.
We spent the last few weeks visiting different BCC centers, working with center staff to create a common schedule and training program and creating a plan to work together to create a collection of special needs curriculum activities for 3rd world countries. This project, which will be quite large, will allow us to distribute materials and activities that people with very limited resources in very underdeveloped countries can utilize to help those in need. It is a partnership that we have been so happy to make and that has helped us finally see some possibilities for the future for these kids.
Yesterday Jillian and I were invited to meet a family that had a daughter with special needs. The woman that invited us works at the post office and we see her every time we go get our packages and every time she tells us about this little girl and how she is trying to help this family. We were a bit nervous about it at first but decided to go and help this woman out anyway. So we went to her friend’s home to meet her daughter who had special needs. When we arrived we met with the family and saw their 5 ½ year old girl named Doreen. Doreen had visible physical disabilities and deformities as well as the intellectual functioning of a typical 6 month old. She is still in diapers, was non-verbal, could not move her legs and arm, struggled holding up her own head but had a smile that lit up the entire room. Doreen was one of the kids that you see that makes you instantly fall in love. As I held her and listen to her mom explain how she doesn’t know what to do, all I kept thinking is how in their one room house this child has very little options, family supports or future choices due to the fact that they live in a 3rd world country where only a handful of services exist and if a family has little funds there are no services they could even access.
Although her situation was pretty bleak Doreen was following everything we were saying and had a smile that melted my heart. It was especially hard when the family asked us to take the child because they had no idea what to do. We told the family that was not an option but informed them about the different programs we knew of and that we would get some more information from those programs to help her out. We also told her we would look into finding an organization to help her get a wheelchair. As we left I felt immediately defeated, same feeling I always have when I leave a situation here where the disability is great and money is the biggest issue. Although I was feeling defeated I also felt a little bit of hope because finally after 5 months of networking and meeting people and trying to find connections we at least had somewhere to turn to for help with this child. That same evening we ran into another friend of ours from America doing work here. He offered us a ride home from town and as we were driving we told him about Doreen. Although he leaves on Monday to return to the United States he immediately started making some phone calls and talking to friends about possibly finding a wheel chair for this girl. It is another reason I love the work we do here. Even in the most dire of situations there is hope and when you are not sure where to go someone runs into you on the street with a huge heart and jumps to help you out.
Whether it is the postoffice employee helping this woman and her child, the BCC centers helping the kids and their families, or our friend helping us with a wheelchair, sometimes that feeling of defeat is replaced by a feeling of hope and possibilities.
It is our hope that through the connections we have worked to make and some of the plans we have for things here we and others will come to help kids like Doreen and help others to work to educate those that are often locked in their homes.
Hopefully we can help the voiceless in society find a way to collectively have a voice.
For more information on our autism program- Check out our newly improved Autism Connects Tanzania website: www.autismconnectstanzania.org