Wearing smart uniforms, rows of pupils stand in line at morning assembly as they prepare to perform the national anthem and a little boy raises the Liberian flag with a great deal of solemnity as the children enthusiastically sing their anthem.
This is Oscar Romero School for deaf children, one of a handful of specialist privately run facilities for children with disabilities in Liberia. There are no government-run specialist schools.
Geraldine “Pinky” Jones is the principal. She is not deaf but has been inspired to work in this field since she was a child. “When I was 12, the first ever deaf school in Liberia opened near my home. I wanted to play with the kids but we couldn’t communicate. I saw them signing and asked them to teach me. The passion grew because I could see how isolated and vulnerable my new friends were.
“I went from learning a few words to doing a teaching placement in a deaf school and being trained by the UN in special education.”
The residential school, supported by the charity Mary’s Meals, has 47 pupils from primary to secondary with a new intake of 15 planned this semester.
She says very few pupils get visits from their families, partly due to the cost, but mostly due to the stigma of disability in Liberia. “Sadly, their parents often want to wash their hands of them,” she says, adding: “I want to drop the notion that these children are hopeless; they are not. My job is to make children hopeful. I see no reason why they can’t live full lives.”
The school has recently attempted to integrate older pupils into a local secondary school and vocational college, with limited success. “When they leave here it is hard for them, really hard. Their parents don’t have sign language so they go from here with all their friends around them to a place where no one can understand them. They can get very frustrated and give up on life. But I tell them that they have to keep trying to reach out.”
Dr Maria Kett, assistant director of the Leonard Cheshire Disability and Inclusive Development Centre based at University College London says how many people with disabilities live in Liberia is unclear. “The 2008 census had a question asking if people identified as disabled but it didn’t give space for specifics. That figure showed at 3% but we know the real figure is far higher.”
Kett says there have been government efforts to support disabled people by including them in wider national poverty alleviation strategies. This is believed to be primarily due to effective lobbying by the Liberian disability community. But there is little dedicated support. She is leading a three-year research project, funded by the UK Department for International Development and the Economic and Social Research Council, exploring the wellbeing and poverty experienced by people with and without disabilities in the same community.
“We know that poverty and disability feed into each other. Poor people are more likely to become disabled through lack of access to healthcare, clean water … and disabled people are more likely to be poor. But what we are less sure of is how those links are perpetuated,” says Kett.
“Disabled people are some of the most marginalized and excluded in Liberian society but unpacking whether they are marginalized because they are poor or because they are disabled is more of a challenge, but very important in terms of being able to address these issues properly.”
The research will help the drafting and implementation of new human rights and disability action plans for the country.
Arney N. Steward lost his sight after contracting river blindness during Liberia’s civil wars. Left destitute, he arrived in Lowah, Montserrado County. When he discovered the village had no school, he offered to start one.
“I said to the parents, ‘Bring your children to me and I will teach them.’ The next day five children came and I sat in the field and taught them ABC and math. The next morning, they came back.”
From that humble start he created the Yassa J. David Christian Academy, which today has 189 pupils from nursery to fifth grade (year 6 in the UK), recruiting children from three villages: Lowah, Jawajeh and Gogein. The thriving school is a testament to his dedication.
“After going blind I learned people have no respect for [blind people] and think you can’t do anything,” he says. “But people think that because the government provides disabled people zero opportunities. I want to keep proving that despite my condition I can contribute. We need to support and encourage other disabled people to do the same.”
Recently, the parents of pupils have begun fundraising to send Steward to Monrovia so he can learn braille. The hope is that if he does so the school may be able to accept its first blind pupil.
“We don’t even have textbooks or chalk but we do have an ethos of self-determination,” says the principal, Joseph Harris. “That is only possible because of our founder. Whenever we think things are too hard, we think about what he’s been through and how he managed to achieve so much. Because of him every single pupil in this school strives to do better.”