Every Child Welcome: Teaching Students of All Abilities

Nkobmo is stunning, but hard to reach. Surrounded by the lush green hills, this little island in Lake Kivu is home to just over 18,000 people. The small community sticks together, cherishing the tradition of Mashi, a dialect closely linked to the Masi people of southern Africa. To prosper here one must fit in, and be one with the community. 

Alexiana and Innocent’s family was quite the opposite. With two out of their seven children born with severe disabilities, fitting in was impossible. 

It started when their daughter Joyeuse was born with signs of a slight disability. Facing stigma and being excluded is a heavy price to pay for any family living in a small rural community, so most try to hide the disabilities of their children. With Joyeuse this wasn’t too hard, but then came the next child. Gard was born with a condition that made it impossible for him to walk or stand on his own. His disability was visible, and apparent from birth. Innocent and his wife Alexiana struggled with this reality: 

“When Gard was born, we had such mixed feelings. We were happy to have a baby, but also worried about how he would survive. We didn't have enough money to take care of him. We were also concerned about what other people might say, given the fact that it was taboo in our community to have a child with a disability,” Innocent remembers.

Living on the island of Nkombo meant facing judgment and shame from the community. People speculated about the cause of the disabilities, and even Innocent's relatives came up with theories, blaming his wife's bad luck, or ancestral curses. These false beliefs led to conflicts within the family. Constant worry, anxiety and anger consumed Innocent and Alexiana.

Two students reading in wheelchairs

The situation got worse with the birth of their seventh child, Prince, who was born with even more severe disabilities. “Gard was two years old when Prince was born. I thought it was a rare thing, having a baby with a disability. We were surprised to see that Prince had the same disability as Gard” said Innocent. 

When they tried to learn the true reason for their children's conditions, Alexiana and Innocent found that medical practitioners offered little clarity. One theory suggested that their children’s disabilities were caused by the couple being related. Indeed, having grown up on the same small island, there was a real possibility that Alexiana and Innocent were distant cousins. They had no way to know for sure and stop the gossip, and this weighed heavily on their hearts. 

Raising a large family and having children with disabilities made life very challenging, both psychologically and financially. Alexiana had to stay at home to care for the children. Taking their growing children to school became a difficult task. Innocent had to carry the children between home and school, leaving him with very little time to work. He is a fisherman, and his modest earnings became even slimmer as he spent time helping his children get to school, instead of catching fish to sell. 

“I tried so hard for a while, yet carrying two children to and from school on my back every day was just too much. We were growing even poorer. I was spending time carrying the children and not making money,” Innocent explains.

With problems piling on, Innocent gave up on his children's education, and focused on his job. With this decision, all hope for a better future for his children was gone.

Alexiana and Innocent did not know that help for families like theirs was available until a USAID-funded project called Uburezi Iwacu (meaning “Homes and Communities”) reached their village. The project aimed to improve literacy at home and engage the community in promoting education for all children, including those with disabilities.

Thanks to this project, Alexiana and Innocent, along with other parents in their community, learned how to include people with disabilities in their daily lives and activities, and how to care for children with disabilities. This training transformed the negative beliefs and reduced the stigma that was associated with disabilities. After their community learned about disabilities, Alexiana and Innocent found that their children were better accepted and loved by their neighbors.

To help bridge physical barriers to inclusion, the project donated assistive products to families. Alexiana and Innocent’s children received wheelchairs and could now make their way to school and back home independently. They returned to school and began learning to read. 

For Innocent, the sight of his children going back to school rekindled hope for their future. He no longer saw them as burdens, but started thinking that, with education and support, they could become independent and lead fulfilling lives as adults.

With USAID projects like Uburezi Iwacu, a better and more prosperous future for all is becoming a reality. In close partnership with the local government and schools, this project organized training in Rwandan Sign Language for teachers, and brought texts printed in Braille for deaf and visually impaired students.

With the right support, compassion and understanding, every child can thrive, regardless of their abilities.  Alexiana and Innocent's family found a better way forward. Their children are thriving and learning, and the community understands and supports them better. 

As for the teachers, they are receiving additional support from other USAID-funded projects so they can improve their skills, use a variety of teaching tools, and help every child learn how to read and write in Kinyarwanda. Opening new community libraries as safe and inclusive reading spaces helped promote the culture of reading for all. With all community members involved, the number of children who can read and write is steadily increasing throughout Rwanda. 

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