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Seeing beyond disability

Disability should never be a barrier to success
Disability should never be a barrier to success

Today is International Day for Persons with Disabilities. This day aims to promote understanding of the many issues disabled people face and the all-to-frequent violations of their rights that still occur. It also aims to encourage people to push for improvements in the way disabled people are treated within our society, including in school and workplace.

What does ‘disability' mean?

Disability is a term we hear a lot, but what does it actually means? 'Disability’ refers to either mental or physical impairments that have a long-term and significant impact on a person’s ability to carry out ‘normal’ day-to-day activities.

These impairments can include:

  • Visual or hearing loss
  • Learning difficulties
  • Autism 
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Missing limbs
  • Dwarfism 

Why International Day for Persons with Disabilities is so important!

While much progress has been made since the 1990s when the first International Day for Persons with Disabilities was held, many barriers to inclusion remain. Many disabled people are still discriminated against in the workplace and disabled children often find themselves excluded from activities at school.

Often, discrimination arises from a lack of understanding about the needs disabled people have. That’s why days like International Day for Persons with Disabilities are so very important for raising awareness and changing attitudes.

Our commitment to disabled children

At SOS Children’s Villages were are committed to empowering disabled children, changing negative attitudes towards disability within communities and promoting inclusion. We run several dedicated programmes for disabled children and always make sure that disabled children in our care have access to the specialist support they need.

For both Juan in Bolivia and Mariam in Malawi, having access to specialist care, love and attention has changed their lives and both are now flourishing. Disabled children across much of Latin America face severe discrimination in clear violation of their human rights. Infanticide, isolation in institutions and family neglect are all too common. Discrimination is a real problem in Malawi too, with disabled children frequently marginalised.

Juan’s story

Before his first birthday, Juan would often get colds. Sometimes these colds were particularly nasty. But, because his mum was unable to get him the right medical treatment he began to develop complications. Eventually, looking after her young son become too much and Juan came into the care of SOS Children’s Village Cochabamba.

Juan and his SOS mum, Children's Village Cochabamba
Nancy is incredibly proud of how far Juan has come
"People have seen how important it is to love and support all children"

His SOS mum Nancy quickly noticed something different about this little boy. “It was clear that he had a hearing impairment,” she says. Identified as hypoacusis, Juan was found to have severe hearing loss in his left ear and moderate hearing loss in his right ear. Doctors concluded that the damage stemmed from all the untreated colds Juan had had as a baby.

With the right support comes success

Faced with this difficult diagnosis and the risk that Juan would never be able to speak, Nancy quickly formed a plan of action. With the help of specialist tutors and other staff at SOS Children’s Village Cochabamba, she set about learning sign language.

To help Juan’s development, special tutors also provided drama, games, music and child psychology support. Nancy was determined that her son would be able to communicate with her, and her with him, so she worked hard to become fluent in sign language. She also encouraged the other children in the family to learn, and now Juan is able to communicate with everyone in his family house. His reading and writing has also come on in leaps and bounds with the help of the older children. Nancy is very proud of her little boy and her family.

Nancy’s commitment to Juan and her refusal to let his hearing impairment prevent him from having a ‘normal’ childhood, has helped change attitudes towards disability in the local community. “People have seen how important it is to love and support all children, regardless of their ability,” says Nancy.

Mariam’s story

Mariam was born with achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism. It was a big shock to her family, but they have taken her disability in their stride – something that is far from easy in rural Malawi where disability is often received with negativity.

Six months after birth, Mariam was referred to the children’s rehabilitation unit at the SOS Medical Centre in Lilongwe. The Medical Centre is well-known throughout the region. Operating in an incredibly poor area it offers access to doctors, nurses, a prescription service and is even equipped for minor surgeries.

Mariam, Lilongwe, Malawi
Thanks to the physiotherapy sessions at the SOS Rehabilitation Clinic, Mariam is now able to walk and stand unaided
But it is the children’s rehabilitation unit that people are most grateful for. Here children with disabilities can come for regular physiotherapy and peer support. The unit is also able to provide therapy aids for the children including special shoes, walking frames, chair supports and even specially designed gadgets for those with more complex needs.

Parents and guardians not only receive practical support, but also psychological support – something that is very much needed in a society where disability is considered a bad thing.

Overcoming disability

Mariam has been going to two therapy sessions a week since she was six months old. She is now nearly three. By eight months she was able to sit unaided and by one year she was standing with support. She was given a walking frame to help her take her first steps – something she achieved by the age of two.

Her mum is so proud of how far her little daughter has come and is incredibly grateful to the staff at the clinic. “I really appreciate the work done by the medical centre staff,” she says. “I hope they will be able to help many, many others like Mariam in the future.”

Physiotherapist Miriam Mwale is also proud of Mariam’s achievements, but she is also pleased that Mariam is fully accepted by her family and the community. “There is still work to be done on people’s perceptions of disability in Malawi,” she admits. “The work we do at the rehabilitation unit helps disabled people to become not only stronger physically, but they and their families come to accept their disabilities and are given the strength to face up to any negative reactions they may encounter."