On a lush hillside at the outskirts of Nakuru town is Hill Special School for the Mentally Challenged. For more than four decades, the school has been a safe haven for hundreds of children grappling with mental health challenges.
To the school’s principal Ms. Lucy Kihoto each and every single day is a learning process as she gets to discover something new about each of her 209 learners who she prefers to describe as ‘differently abled’.
Having interacted with them, Ms. Kihoto reveals that the over 20 teachers and support staff at the institution have come to understand that through constant training and practice, mentally challenged individuals can learn and become responsible people.
“I have seen mentally challenged children who are geniuses or more talented than ordinary children. It is disappointing when a parent becomes disinterested in their education,” offers the Principal.
Today Ms Kihoto is hosting a team from Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) under the stewardship of Head of Corporate Affairs Mr.Bernard Osero which is on a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) mission at the school.
The school is a sanctuary for children with neurodiversity (Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy), other developmental disorders, and children with multiple disabilities like deaf and blind.
The classes at Nakuru Hill School are divided into Nursery, Primary and a Vocational training wing.
“The nursery class caters for ‘toddlers’. They can be older, even 20 years old, and are taught how to scribble, doodle and colour. In Primary, it is those we are preparing and teaching them basic life skills such as toileting, training them how to speak, feed themselves, among other skills.
The vocational training wing for the physically and mentally challenged children offers courses in shoe making, weaving and beading , hairdressing, ornament making and weaving,” explains Ms. Kihoto.
She is disappointed that some parents opt to hide children with disabilities at home because they are ashamed of them.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), children with hearing, seeing or intellectual disabilities do worse than those with physical disabilities. It also indicates that there are more disabled children from poor families as well as from minority ethnic groups.
The Principal adds: “Most of the children with mental challenges are seen as a bother to parents and sometimes locked in cages while their parents go to work. Some guardians fail to take such kids to school because they believe they do not need education. We want to tell such parents that it is the right of every child to get education.”
Ms. Kihoto says there are very few schools in the county that deal with children with such conditions and they cannot accommodate the large numbers of children with special needs.
She petitions county governments to construct more schools to cater for special education and build rescue centres for abandoned children with developmental disorders.
County governments, the principal further indicates, need to support Educational Assessment Resource Service centres, which are critical in evaluating specific education needs of mentally challenged persons in terms of personnel, office space and equipment.
“Advocacy, sensitization and mobilization of education for children with disabilities at the grassroots is also poor. Parents and guardians should be actively involved in education of their children with disabilities,”
Rescue centres, she says, will ensure that the children have access to education, medication and therapy, and that their parents’ mental well-being is taken care of at the same facilities.
There is also a shortage of medicines for managing developmental conditions in public hospitals, notes Ms Kihoto.
She adds that such medications can only be found in private hospitals, which sell them at exorbitant prices.
“This means many parents leave their children without medication because they cannot afford it. Ways ought to be found to provide this medication at subsidized prices,” she says.
Mr. Osero appeals to the Ministry of Education to ensure all teachers undergo training on how to attend to children with special needs.
He urges parents to enroll their children with special needs in school, noting that they would get full support to realize their potential in life.
“We must be sensitive to people with special needs in our profession. We can’t continue to ignore them as they are important like any other person,” he observes.
He states that KPA is supporting such institutions in enabling children pursue vocational training courses and gain skills to make them lead independent lives.
“We are out here to touch a soul, and there was no better way than to offer assistance to these children. For us, it is all about reaching out by buying from them some of the products they make and donating new sets of bedding,” he says.
Mr Osero says he is motivated when he sees the children doing something other people thought they couldn’t.
“The children have proved that what others can do, they too can. You just have to be patient and understand them,” says KPA Head of Corporate affairs.
The World Health Organization further indicates that people with mental health problems have intellectual problems and that people lack information on how different things can affect persons living with disabilities.
The UNHCR estimates that 1 in every 20 children aged below 14 years globally live with some kind of disability.
Looking back, Ms. Kihoto says she has no regrets because of the path she has traveled since she has found a lot of fulfillment.
By Anne Mwale