In a crowded classroom for children with visual impairment, Taylor, 11, runs her fingers over dotted paper, reading aloud a story printed in braille. Across a barren dirt lot sporadically punctuated by lively green trees, Abigael, 12, who has cerebral palsy, works in the deafblind unit, sharpening her orientation and mobility skills. In another classroom, Christopher, 14, who is blind, ranks second in class alongside and ahead of most of his sighted peers.
This is life at the Kilimani Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya.
Located just a few short kilometers from the bustling center of the capital city, the school believes children with disabilities should not only receive a quality education, but integrate into mainstream classrooms where possible. Subsequently, in a country where stigma surrounding disability persists and schools are hampered by low enrollment, Kilimani stands out as a model program. And Perkins School for the Blind has played an integral role in shaping the school as the regional leader it is today.
“Perkins has fed our children, given them uniforms and trained our teachers,” says Madam Eunice Bago, chair of the Board of Management at Kilimani. “There’s nothing Perkins hasn’t done for our children.”
A class photo at the Kilimani Primary School.
The partnership between the two organizations dates back to 1995 with the inception of Kilimani’s deafblind unit, as Perkins offered its staff early trainings and consultations. More recently, Perkins has helped develop the school’s transition programs to equip students with vocational skills related to agriculture.
It has also brought Kilimani to the U.S. In 2011, Mary Maragia, a teacher in the school’s deafblind unit, came to Perkins to participate in the Educational Leadership Program (ELP), a nine-month teacher training curriculum open to teachers all over the world.
“What Mary learned at Perkins has made this school the best in Kenya, because she brought it back and put it in practice,” adds Bago.
Conversely, Kilimani is an important, but small, piece of Perkins’ overall mission. Through initiatives like the ELP, as well as newer efforts like Perkins International Academy, the organization is endeavoring to help countries, both in Africa and around the world, meet their commitments to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, namely Goal 4, which guarantees a quality education to all children by 2030.
“Across Africa, we train teachers, empower parents and support learners in class,” says Angela Affran, regional coordinator for Perkins International (PI) in Africa. “But PI’s broader mission is to ensure teachers are given the requisite knowledge and skills to provide quality education for over 6 million children around the world with multiple disabilities and visual impairment, or deafblindness, so as to live independent lives in society.”
A teacher helping her student read braille.
These ambitious, systemic efforts, though, are ultimately meant to have an effect on an individual level, and that human impact is readily apparent at Kilimani.
Joyce Munanie Musyoka, mother to Abigael mentioned above, says she never believed her daughter could be “self-reliant” in any meaningful way. That changed after she enrolled her at Kilimani in 2010.
“Since I brought her to this school, her social skills have improved,” she says. “She’s improved also in terms of feeding skills, her mobility and orientation.”
But where lives success, challenge also resides, and the work at Kilimani is far from complete. The school still wants for educational resources. Furthermore, disability is still stigmatized throughout Kenya, as it is around the world, and many children are kept from class and often hidden away entirely.
No less, the work goes on. Through these challenges, Taylor will continue to improve on her reading skills, Abigael her orientation and mobility, Christopher will reach for the top spot in his class, and life at Kilimani will continue.
Photo credit: Sammy Njoroge