Embracing our differences

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JUST a kilometre from Butha-Buthe camptown, atop a plateau and hidden from sight by trees and two soccer fields, sits a very special place.

At first glance, it seems like a regular secondary school, with well-tended gardens and a relatively new playground.

But this is no ordinary school.

It is called Thuso e Tla Tsoa Kae Handicapped Centre which translates in English to “Where will help come from?”

 Thuso Centre, as it is commonly called, is a boarding school and care-centre whose mission is to provide basic functional academic, social and life skills to children with mental and physical disabilities, thereby enabling them to lead happy, healthy, productive and independent lives. 

More of a community than a school, it is a place where children who are otherwise neglected, ridiculed or ostracised can live, learn, play and grow in a safe and loving environment.

There are regular classes and closely planned curricula, but class content is as likely to include basic life-skills (like how to dress oneself) as well as Maths or Science. 

The teachers at Thuso Centre set individual goals for each student.  These goals may range from teaching a teenager to tie his shoes to teaching a young woman to take her first steps. 

Most of these teachers began working at the school years ago as volunteers before Sentebale, and later the Ministry of Education and Training, began providing money for their pay cheques. 

It is an exhausting, frustrating, and often thankless job. 

But without the love and support that the staff at Thuso Centre provide, these children would have nothing and no one. 

Thuso Centre is not the only place in Lesotho for disabled boys and girls, but it is one of very few. There is also Phelisanong, near Pitseng in Leribe, and a handful of schools for the deaf and blind around Maseru.

 These centres are all wonderful places, but with small capacities they are not enough to provide the special attention needed for all of the disabled children in Lesotho.

The 2001 Lesotho Demographic Survey conducted by the Bureau of Statistics indicated that about 4.2 percent of the country’s population (about 79 800 people) have some form of disability, and it has been suggested that these numbers are low. 

Disabilities, particularly mental disabilities, are heavily stigmatised in Lesotho, which often leads to people with disabilities being hidden away in their homes and under-reported, particularly in rural areas. 

Using World Health Organisation estimates for disability prevalence of seven to 10 percent of the population in a country like Lesotho, the population of disabled persons is estimated at between 155 000 and 220 000.

The government of Lesotho’s 2010 Education Act says “a learner who is physically, mentally, or otherwise handicapped (will be) given the special treatment, education, and care required by his or her condition.” 

Each semester, more and more parents arrive at Thuso Centre, desperate to enroll their disabled children, but space is limited and each semester the staff is forced to turn too many away. 

But these are just the lucky ones with parents willing to try to find a safe place for them.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of children who are not receiving the special education and care that they need.

The Lesotho National Strategic Plan for 2006-2011 recognises that disabled children are among the most vulnerable groups in the country.

They are especially threatened by the scourge of HIV and Aids due to the double burden of increased risk of infection (higher risk of sexual assault due to disability; increased reliance on another person or decreased ability to work, which may lead to transactional sex; lack of access to relevant information about the pandemic; damaging myths and misconceptions about disability and HIV/Aids) and reduced access to education, prevention, treatment and care services.

 An April 2004 global mail survey on HIV/Aids and disability conducted by Yale University in the United States and the World Bank concluded that: HIV and Aids is a significant and almost wholly unrecognised problem among disabled populations worldwide. 

There are currently no public HIV/Aids programmes focusing on people with disabilities and little-to-no interaction between HIV/Aids prevention programmes and disabled people’s organisations.

Although the government must play a part in addressing the needs of people with disabilities, equally important, if not more so, are attitudes towards those with disabilities.

The stigma against people with disabilities is immense and its impact is staggering.

Some teachers are afraid to teach them. 

Parents and relatives are afraid to show them in public. There have been instances of health-workers refusing to test them for HIV. 

These are unacceptable attitudes in any society, particularly in one as otherwise accepting, caring, charitable and loving as Lesotho. 

Changing them will only be possible through awareness and education.

Talk to your children about it; teach them that just because someone is different does not mean that they are any less deserving of respect. 

If you have a small business, perhaps you could hire someone with a disability to sweep up or some other job that suits their specific ability. 

Not only would this boost their self-esteem and make them visible as productive members of your community, but it would also show your support, as a prominent community member, for those with disabilities. 

The schools and institutions mentioned in this article are also always looking for volunteers or donations. 

You can contact Thuso Centre at +266 6325 8866 and Phelisanong at +266 5801 1942.

Back in Butha-Buthe, there is talk of cutting down the trees that hide Thuso Centre, making it visible to the town below. 

Unfortunately, there are no trees we can cut down to make those with disabilities throughout Lesotho more visible or more accepted. 

But if each of us tries to be accepting, we’ll be well on our way.

Greg Viola is a volunteer serving with the US Corps.

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