Third graders in a classroom at The Center for Inclusive Education and Training of the Deaf and Hearing in Burkina Faso. Photo by: Devex

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Young children wave their hands above their heads, the sign language for applause, in support of their deaf classmate who volunteered to solve a math problem in front of the class on the chalkboard.

“We cannot mess up,” teacher Rasmané Zougmore tells his students as he notes a small error in the student’s final answer. He signs the same message with his hands, “Because if we mess up the entire operation will be incorrect.”

Third graders in this classroom at The Center for Inclusive Education and Training of the Deaf and Hearing, or CEFISE, are among 3,882 students registered at the only known inclusive education center for the deaf and hard of hearing in West Africa. The school teaches students with physical, visual and light intellectual disabilities alongside deaf and hearing individuals. About 500 of the students have disabilities.

School Director and education specialist Thérèse Kafando says integration is the best way to prepare disabled children for a successful life after secondary school. “There is one single world for everyone, not two for handicapped and able-bodied people,” she said. Following high school, many students continue on at a local university with the help of their classmates, and find jobs outside of the limited roles usually reserved for the disabled, as a cook or house help.

“There is one single world for everyone, not two for handicapped and able-bodied people.”

— Thérèse Kafando, CEFISE Director

Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world, with almost half the population living below the poverty line. However, the political will to support the livelihoods of the disabled here is unique, and could offer a model for other countries in the region struggling with how to integrate children with disabilities into the education system and workforce. To support those with limited incomes, the government offers a disability card, which provides free health care services, transportation costs and tuition fees.

The government in 2009 also ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and a year later adopted a National Strategy for the Protection and Promotion of Persons with Disabilities. International NGOs such as the Vienna-based development and disability charity Light for the World contribute to government efforts to build an inclusive society, where persons with disabilities are fully included and empowered.

“We support the government to have inclusive programs because it is very important that if we talk about development, that means we see all of the population as actors, we all have something to do,” Elie Bagbila, Light for the World’s Burkina country representative told Devex.

Inclusive education

An important component of inclusive education is learning how to implement classroom management for different groups of individuals in the same class.

In places like the United States, the idea of inclusive education has faced multiple challenges, including issues of assessing student progress, and academic training for teachers about special needs. Critics have argued that managing special needs detracts from the educational experience of nondisabled students. However, CEFISE Director Kafando said this balance has never been a problem at her school.

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Here, teachers learn sign language to maximize their ability to reach all students. Hearing and non-hearing children are dispersed among one another at grouped desks around the classroom, while the teacher leads the lessons in sign language and spoken words. A hearing impaired teacher’s assistant supports classrooms, focusing on deaf students to ensure their progress during lessons.

Before beginning at CEFISE two years ago, Zougmore had no prior experience with deaf populations or sign language. “It has definitely been a rewarding learning experience for me,” he said. Though there are still a plethora of words that he doesn’t know how to sign, he focuses on using the words he can say with his hands.

Kafando said that when disabled students learn separately from nondisabled peers, they often have difficulties working together later in life. “We help integrate them into society by giving them direct contact with other children, which supports the socialization of all students,” she said.

Political will

Providing inclusive education requires strong government support. Light for the World estimates that two-thirds of children with disabilities in Burkina Faso do not attend or have never attended school.

To reverse this phenomenon, the government created a Department for the Promotion of Inclusive Education, Girl and Gender as part of their 2010 development goals. The country launched a National Strategy for the Development of Inclusive Education in 2015.

The national inclusion strategy focuses on a local community-based rehabilitation approach as the starting point to promote a culture of acceptance and comprehensive inclusion of disabled persons. Physical therapists circulate on motorcycles through designated villages, providing at-home rehabilitation services to identified children in a region. Group learning sessions are also announced monthly to inform local populations on varying health topics, including how to help someone during a seizure. Organizations such as Light for the World and the Catholic Organization for Development and Solidarity support the government in implementing programs in 8 out of 13 subregions, with an objective of reaching all corners nationwide by 2020.

This national effort hopes to reduce stigmatization and abandonment of disabled infants. “It is very easy to become frustrated with handicapped people and exclude them, but it takes time to include them or to change the mentality of others,” Bagbila said, “so we have to work in each region to show that disability is not a fatality.”

The government had announced an ambitious goal to increase the rate of disabled employment to 50 percent, up from its current 0.2 percent. Though Bagbila told Devex he is currently awaiting to see how the president will support disabled populations, a recent United Nations Human Rights Committee country review noted the country’s continued adherence to a 10 percent reservation for disabled applicants in public service as of mid-2016.

In the U.S., the passage of the U.S. Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 required that children be educated in the “least restrictive environment.” The legislation led to the gradual acceptance of educating students with disabilities alongside their non-disabled peers. Today, the majority of students with disabilities spend more than 80 percent of their school days in regular classroom settings, according to research conducted by Boston College professors.

“It’s amazing how the students work so well together when I give them group work time; it’s as if there is no disability in between them.”

— Rasmané Zougmore, CEFISE teacher

Social support

Some opponents of inclusive education have raised concerns that it could lead to bullying or mockery. Zougmore said he’s seen just the opposite in his classroom. “It’s amazing how the students work so well together when I give them group work time; it’s as if there is no disability in between them,” he said.

Kafando attributes some of the CEFISE success to the supplementary programs offered for the disabled students, including speech therapy for those with communication disorders, audiology support and one-on-one sessions with psychologists. Even young adults with no schooling are offered vocational training options in fabric making, sewing, welding and catering in the hopes of expanding their chances to find full-time work.

Kafando told Devex that providing for the disabled has been an honor for her and an opportunity to give back to those less fortunate than herself. “Everyone has the possibility of becoming handicapped,” she said. “Today we are in good health, but we don’t know if tomorrow something could happen and we, too, become disabled.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Light for the World facilitated Devex's travel and logistics for this reporting. However, Devex maintains full editorial control of the content.

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About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.