Joyland: Providing Hope for Some of Kenya’s Disabled

BY Lawrence Nyanya
BU News Service

In 2010, Kenya adopted a constitution that outlines policies to protect the rights and interest of people living with disabilities. But the law of the land has remained true only on paper. In reality, Kenyans with disabilities face harsh and sometimes cruel challenges. Even in the 21st century, the birth of a disabled child is rarely welcomed or celebrated in some Kenyan communities. A 2005 UN summary report, “Violence Against Disabled Children,” found that such children are considered a curse, a bad omen. Often their mere presence is considered evil, and they are locked in the house to avoid embarrassing the unlucky parents in public. That is, if the child is fortunate enough to escape being killed.

Caroline Rono is a student teacher in her final year at Maseno University in western Kenya, not far from Kisumu, the country’s third largest city. Rono is studying Special Needs Education, and is specializing in working with the physical disabled.

The widespread discomfort with disability in Kenya prevents many such children from attending school. Support for disabled children comes largely from foreign donors. One example of how foreign support has made education possible for these children is Joyland School in Kisumu, where, although I am not physically handicapped myself, I was a student from 2008-09. Joyland caters primarily to physically disabled children, some of whom have been abandoned by their families. The secondary school serves 186 students, 60 percent of whom are sponsored by faith-based local and foreign institutions. Securing and maintaining this kind of sponsorship is no easy task for these handicapped students. Sponsors tend to seek out students with the greatest academic potential and drop their sponsorship if the student does not perform well in school. Finding sponsors for students with poor grades is nearly impossible.

Aid, in the form of sponsorship, brings both blessing and opportunity for exploitation of able-bodied and disabled students alike. Non-disabled students are not formal care takers at the school but by default, they assist disabled students by pushing wheelchairs, bathing them, lifting them, and washing their clothes. As a result, some of them begin to think that their “labor” deserves reward. They start to demand payment for these services and students that receive sponsorship and have pocket money to spare can become the target of exploitation.

But to the majority of students, Joyland offers shelter, care, a ray of hope–and even a sense of family to children who might otherwise have been forgotten.

Joyland primary school pupils sit in the girls'  dormitory.
Joyland primary school pupils sit in the girls’ dormitory.

At Joyland School, the positive impact of foreign funding is evident both from the number of students sponsored here and the facilities provided. Donor funding built the school’s science and computer labs, library, classrooms and even supplied wheelchairs to students in need. The lives of Joyland students tell a story about foreign aid in Kenya in a very real and practical way.

Not all Joyland students are disabled. In recent years, the government has advocated a policy of integration/mainstreaming in Kenya’s schools. Joyland is one such school where this policy is being implemented. Eighteen-year-old Flavia Adooh was living in a refugee camp after her family fled from Uganda. She was identified by a local NGO and sponsored to come to Joyland.

The difficulties experienced by students living with a disability do not, however, end with donor funding. The principal of Joyland, Raphael Aura, says some parents of disabled students think their obligations and responsibilities to provide love and support end once their child becomes sponsored.

“There are some parents who have disabled children and they believe that a disabled child is supposed to be assisted by an organization or the school,” Aura said. “You may find a parent who is not poor and maybe has three children in high school. [The parent pays the] school fee, gives support and provision to the two children who are not disabled. But this one with disability, he would like the school to help support or to look for some organization to support the child.”

Some of these parents use special schools as dumping grounds to get rid of these unwelcome children. It is common to find parents bringing their children to school at the beginning of a term and never coming to collect them for holidays. Wheelchair-bound students who cannot travel on their own are forced to stay in school alone. During long holidays, where the teachers are overwhelmed and cannot give them any care, the condition is even more pathetic.

People with disabilities begging for food and money are a common sight in the streets and towns of Kenya. In reality, some of them may have gone through secondary education in special schools. Secondary school in Kenya is oriented toward helping a student enter into a college or university. For a disabled student who cannot perform well in exams because of the nature of their disability, their education ends without practical vocational training that can help them live an independent life, Aura explains.

“They have certificates, they have secondary education, but after secondary education it is like they are abandoned so you find in the long end, some of them begin to lose hope in life and start thinking that education has no value simply because they have not been supported to reach a level where they can lead an independent life,” Aura said.

Kenya’s special schools provide very little vocational training. In the future, Joyland hopes to run a vocational training program alongside its academic programs to provide practical skills to students who do not have high academic performance. Joyland serves students with a wide range of disabilities, some of which severely limit a student’s ability to do well in school. For those students, some type of practical training is the only assurance that they can survive and live independently after they leave the school.

There are many challenges to overcome before people living with disabilities are full members of Kenyan society. Yet, despite the obstacles, Kenya is making progress. Policy makers recognize the urgent needs of this vulnerable population but lack resources to implement significant change. It will be many years before Joyland’s motto of “opportunity and not sympathy” for the disabled becomes a reality.