An important part of the project was to respond to the social needs of the students. To that effect, we held a one-week camp. The aim was to create a spirit of togetherness among the students, to help them imagine their future professional and personal lives through examples, and to allow for their voices to be heard beyond the campus via a national radio station.
A bit of context: The school where the project is held is the first of its kind in the country. Education for the blind and hard of hearing is usually provided through specialized schools. The blind students for example attend boarding schools where the only students they interact with also share the disability and the teachers are appropriately trained to assist them. While this has its many benefits, such education ends usually with high school, at best, since the specialized schools do not strictly follow the national curricula that provide access to national exams for access to university. Moreover, the schools often emphasize vocational training in their approach to education. In response to this, a national program was started for the sake of “integrative” learning, meaning that students of all kinds of disability should be in the same schools as non-disabled students. This is a huge undertaking because an integrated school requires a lot of changes in terms of structural accessibility, the training of teachers, the provision of specialized learning materials, etc. In light of this, the ministry of education started this as a pilot program with only one school: the Lycée Notre Dame de la Sagesse in Gitega.
Because this is a pilot program, there is a lot of trial and error involved and this has deleterious effects on the students’ experiences both in and outside the classroom. We’ll return to the material needs later, but for now, the social needs. Imagine a school that has been in place since the 1920s, functioning as a regular high school with no considerations for accessibility. It is now 100 years later, and the school is tasked of welcoming students with all kinds of disability, both physical and mental. And these students are to study and live with the rest of the students in the same structure save for some minor changes to support the students (e.g. the provision of sign language teachers, braille copyists, etc.). Try as it may, the school will have serious challenges which will have an effect on the students’ social wellbeing.
For the one-week camp, we brought the students back to school from home – the school year had ended a couple weeks earlier. This was the first time they were brought together in such a selective way, and we hoped to give them a sense of their having a community and a support mechanism with peers. Each day, we would have presentations on select topics (disability rights, mental health, sexual health, professional development, advocacy, etc.). We would also have play time which aimed at showcasing the students’ various talents. Towards the end of the week, we held a testimony day where we invited blind persons who have established careers to speak to the students about their professional and personal lives. In addition, a journalist from the Radio Culture Nderagakura, the official national radio for the ministry of education, was present both to give a testimony of her own (as a disabled person) and to record the conversations and grievances of the students to air on radio.
The impact of the week was immense, to judge from the students’ assessment at the end. For most of them this was the very first time they felt that their lives mattered, that they had rights that protected them, that they saw older blind people living successful professional and personal lives. One could see the joy and the reignited hope for the future in their faces. To conclude the week, we held a small get together where the students expressed their thanks and hopes. The highlight was a series of songs that they all sang together, with an unbelievable harmony and deep emotion. I teared up with joy at the sight of the impact that the project was making manifest in such a short time.