Deep in Kenya's largest urban slum, families of children who have disabilities find hope

With support from Perkins School for the Blind, Nairobi Family Support Services helps vulnerable children from families who can’t otherwise afford it

Two women with children in their laps sit side by side.

Two moms sit with their children at Nairobi Family Support Services.

November 21, 2018

A mother boards a bus in Nairobi, Kenya, and with her child sitting in her lap, takes it some 50 kilometers to the edge of Kibera. When the bus reaches the end of the line, she gets off and, carrying her child who has severe disabilities, walks the last few kilometers into the heart of one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. It’s an arduous trip. But they make it every Wednesday, because at the end they wind up at the only place the mother knows will provide the expert care her child needs.

“We come from so far because the services are so expensive elsewhere,” she says, her words translated from Kiswahili. “Here, we get help for free.”

Her story is hardly unique. Families who have children with disabilities from all over the city, most living in extreme poverty, similarly find solace here at Nairobi Family Support Services (NFSS). The organization’s staff provides their children with free rehabilitative care, clinical and educational assessments and therapy services, all while training parents how they can best support their children. But the NGO doesn’t do it alone. Perkins School for the Blind is here, too, deep in the largest urban slum in all of sub-Saharan Africa, its International arm a vital partner in aiding vulnerable families who can’t afford care for their children.

“Perkins helps us in so many ways, to facilitate clinical assessments, school placements and home-based education programs,” says Edwin Mwaura, project officer with NFSS. “And they’ve given us the resources to train parents and teachers, especially those dealing with early childhood education.”

Perkins has also directly trained members of its staff to identify and diagnose children who have visual impairment and multiple disabilities (MDVI). Most critically, Mwaura himself graduated in 2014 from Perkins’ Educational Leadership Program (ELP), an intensive teacher training course open to special educators from all around the world. In turn, he was able to join a growing network of ELP graduates with whom he can stay connected and share best practices. And those connections, as well as what he learned during his study, have empowered NFSS to further develop the capacity it needs to help families, both as they come in and in their homes during site visits.

“I learned how to screen for visual impairment there, how to come up with strategies to help kids, come up with tools for assessment and individual rehabilitation and education plans and how to follow up to check the progress of the child,” adds Mwaura. “That was very much helpful from the ELP.”

A chicken walks through the Kibera slum.

A chicken roams a neighborhood in the Kibera slum.

At the same time, Perkins’ support of NFSS is instrumental to its own mission, says Angela Affran, regional coordinator for Perkins International in Africa.

“A child’s ability to learn and to excel in school and society in many ways depends on the support they receive from their families,” she says. “This is what Perkins aims to do here, to help children, but also their parents, because with parental support, the sky’s the limit for what a child can accomplish.”

For Perkins International, though, NFSS represents one piece of the larger puzzle of its work in Kenya. Throughout the country, the organization also supports special education programs in schools, a growing government-run institution that trains teachers of students with visual impairment and other relevant NGOs, ultimately reaching children in every corner of the country. But the fruits of all those relationships, including with NFSS, are born on the ground.

Omari, for instance, was born in 2008 and his parents noticed early on that he seemed to bump into things when crawling. At age 3, he was referred to NFSS, where he worked with Stella Kamau, an educational consultant and another ELP grad, to build his communication skills and help his family learn to better communicate with him. He was subsequently referred by Kamau for medical assessment, confirmed as totally blind and enrolled at the nearby Kilimani Primary School, a model program for special and inclusive education that has thrived under Perkins’ influence.

“Most parents we meet are in the denial stage. They just see no hope in front of them,” adds Mwaura. “But once we take them through counseling and they see the progress of their child, they say, ‘OK, things can actually work.’”

A doctor with NFSS assesses a child laying down on a bed.

NFSS staff work with children with all kinds of disabilities.

But NFSS faces its own challenges too. The organization contends with widespread stigma surrounding disability and must, in many cases, build connections in the community in an effort to find vulnerable children kept hidden away entirely. At the same time, it struggles to procure important resources. Together, these challenges present high barriers to bringing about the full breadth of possible change.  

Nevertheless, Affran says progress is being made through both systemic and attitudinal changes.

“In Kenya, and throughout Africa, we’re making inroads, and that means we can serve more children,” she says. “And the perception of disability is changing. People are beginning to understand, in no small part due to organizations like NFSS, that everyone deserves equal access to the resources they need to live the most independent lives possible.”