How inclusive education can change a community


Susan was close to dropping out of school, due to a lack of support and the stigma around disability. Thanks to the Girls’ Education Challenge Transition (GEC-T) project in Kenya, not only is Susan still in school, but the attitudes of her classmates and neighbours have changed completely.

Three young girls outside a school laughing together

From Mur Ng’Iya village in Kenya, Susan seemed to be about to drop out of education because of the bullying she faced about her disability. Now, thanks to the Girls’ Education Challenge Transition (GEC-T) project, not only is Susan still in school, but the attitudes of her classmates and neighbours have changed completely.

Through a mix of education, children’s clubs and advocacy, Leonard Cheshire’s team brought about real change for Susan. And her community. Susan went from being bullied and unhappy to a happy, successful student with big plans for the future – and a new best friend. 

The impact of disability stigma

Susan became disabled after injuring her hand in a fire when she was two. At the time, her neighbours viewed disability as a bad omen and Susan was soon shunned by her peers. 

Jane, Susan’s mother, said: “No parent let their children play with my daughter because they had a feeling that Susan might transfer the bad omen to them. Her peers used to make fun of her.”

At this point, Susan only felt comfortable around her family – the people who loved her for who she was. 

Barriers at school

However, Jane thought it necessary Susan should be enrolled at school, where she hoped her daughter would be happier and live a fuller life. Jane thought that teachers would be able to tackle discrimination and bullying.

Jane said: “I did not have what I needed when I put Susan into school, but I had to push through with it. I wanted her to experience a different environment, and to access education just like any other child.”

But Susan still encountered barriers. Teachers regularly called Jane into school to talk about Susan’s struggles with writing, and other pupils still isolated Susan. The teachers were not trained to work with learners with disabilities. 

Jane said: “Susan kept saying how some of her classmates never wanted to play with her because they felt that she was not supposed to even be in the same class as them, and they would tease her about her hand. I reported this to the school, but the follow up was not as supportive as I expected. 

“I never thought, though, of taking her out of school. All I wanted was for Susan to finish school and face life with the benefit of a good education. I told her to never give up.”

Working with Leonard Cheshire

The fact remained that Susan had to face discrimination both at school and in the community. Then, in late 2015, Susan met the team behind Leonard Cheshire’s Girls Education Challenge Transition (GEC-T) programme, funded by UK Aid, and things changed for the better.

The project team first talked to Susan and Jane about ways to ensure Susan stayed in school. They also assessed their living standards at home and if the project could support with school fees and educational materials and get a sense of the local community’s attitudes to disability.

Leonard Cheshire’s field staff also worked to bring Susan’s school on board and help them be more inclusive, educating teachers about the needs of disabled learners. With Leonard Cheshire’s help, the school began to run Child-to-Child clubs to encourage children with and without disabilities to mix outside the classroom and change children’s attitudes towards disability. 

And so, eventually, Susan noticed her classmates’ attitudes start to change. Her teachers, meanwhile, became better equipped to help her at school. Even better, she soon found herself with a new best friend, Mary. 

Susan and Mary began spending a lot of time playing and having fun together, and Susan began to open up. At the child-to-child sessions, Susan started to talk openly about the bullying and discrimination she had experienced. They also learned how to report it, so teachers could adequately address it. She received new school materials, and the GEC-T team also paid her school fees. She was soon much happier, more enthusiastic and making good progress in school. 

How inclusive education impacts wider community

Looking towards longer-term change, Leonard Cheshire worked with the school to set up robust responses to incidences of disability-related bullying and discrimination. If a child mistreated their classmate because of disability, a new policy meant that the school would send them home. Their parents would be invited to an educational session about disability to break down stigma and misconceptions. 

This quickly had a wider effect on the community. Parents began to act as role models after their sessions on disability, triggering a shift in attitude among their neighbours, including the village leaders. The area chief said: “Children with disability should feel at home in our midst and any reported discrimination or bullying will be handled with a lot of seriousness by my office.”

Susan’s life changed due to the intervention, as did her community’s. Susan now looks forward to a bright future. Susan said: “These days I feel so happy when I start a game and I have friends who tag along with me at school and even at home. This gives me a desire to always go to school and work towards my dreams.

Susan’s hope for the future

Susan’s success has ignited hope among other learners with disabilities and their parents in the area. There is a sense that much more can and should change. Reflecting, Susan made what she called a “humble request” for more progress on combatting bullying and discrimination. 

Susan said: “People look at us as an additional burden on the community, but that is not the case. Though cases of bullying and harassment have gone down, much more needs to be done where it is still happening. This is my humble request.”