I have written this piece following a series of concerning interactions with a large disability-focused non-governmental organization (NGO). I hope that telling this story will help disabled people, grassroots disability rights activists, and large disability organizations find more productive ways to support one another. The major issues with NGOs highlighted here include:
- NGOs not understanding local contexts,
- NGOs being uninformed of the history of disability inclusive work in regions where they work,
- NGOs spending very little time in local communities with stakeholders,
- NGOs having their own, elitist views of how disability inclusive work should be done, and
- NGOs disrespecting local communities while pushing their personal agendas.
The month is July 2018 and the context is a school for students with physical disabilities practicing reverse inclusion in rural western Kenya. In this school, reverse inclusion means some students with and without disabilities live with their families and travel to and from the school daily. This school also has a boarding component where students with physical disabilities, whose parents cannot afford to take them to and from school every day, live at the school.
Scheduling a Meeting
The initial in-country email communication between myself and a program officer for a large disability-focused NGO reads something like this,
“Unfortunately, I will be unable to make it to Kenya until later than anticipated. Would it be possible to join you in western Kenya later that week? Or would you suggest traveling to western Kenya first and having meetings in Nairobi later in the week?”
Things change, and I am flexible. However, my time in western Kenya was short and I was in the beginning phases of filming a documentary and collecting data on the effectiveness of the inclusive education practices we have been developing in the region since 2010. I respond,
“Yes, my schedule is the same. I am a few hours’ drive from Kisumu. Since we are doing many interviews and starting to film, our schedule is tight and I will not be able to meet in Kisumu. However, you are more than welcome to come visit the local village where I stay”.
The assistant to the program officer, who is from east Africa, but not from Kenya responded, “It would be best to fly to Kisumu and then drive to [the village]…We can do a one-day visit and return.”
The Initial Meeting
I spent my day conducting interviews, visiting inclusive stakeholders in their homes, and holding an inclusion committee meeting. The final meeting was with the officer from the NGO and her assistant. They arrive a few hours late. Upon their arrival, they said things like:
“We didn’t realize our hotel was so far from the schools.”
“We had to follow security protocol, and the hotel you suggested didn’t meet our standards for safety.”
“With the extra time in the car, I was able to quickly read your articles to get an idea of the work the community has done here.”
The waiting inclusion committee, consisting of students with and without disabilities, parents of children with and without disabilities, teachers and administrators from special and primary schools, and community members with and without disabilities, discussed the challenges they face related to inclusive education in the hopes of finding opportunities to collaborate. The meeting was brief and the program officer and her assistant agreed to return the next morning.
School Visit #1
The following day, the program officer and her assistant met with the head teacher of the special school. The head teacher explained that since they began developing inclusive practices, they had seen an increase in enrollment of about 100 students with physical disabilities. The head teacher explained this increase has stretched their resources thin and the government has recently hired eight support staff to help in the dormitories, and two teacher’s aides to support in the classrooms. The program officer responded, “This is yet another reason to put those resources into students’ home schools so they can live with their families rather than live at a special school.” I don’t disagree.
The head teacher provided a tour of the school pointing out the evidence of international disability donor support, which many families in the region see as a very positive sign. There is an assessment center provided by one NGO, and many desks provided from another. We walk through a newly constructed block of classrooms that came from a recent government grant. Aside from a series of “Hmmms,” and “Ahems,” the program officer and her assistant make a series of verbal remarks like, “This school has a long way to go.”
We depart the school to discuss their impressions over lunch. During our meal, I bring up the more than 100-student increase in enrollment at this school since 2016. When I was living in the region in 2015-16 while conducting research, we saw an increase of nine students with disabilities accessing that school. I explained that some of these students lived with their families and some of these students lived at the school, and that these families felt that sending their children to a school practicing reverse inclusion was better than keeping them at home. The program officer jumped in:
“The increase in students living at the school makes it an institution. You are supporting the institutionalization of students with disabilities by doing this work here.”
When asked for suggestions or references on how we could immediately do things differently, the program officer and her assistant offered nothing. After lunch, I invited the program officer and her assistant to join us for an in-home interview with a mother of a daughter who is deaf.
“Take your time. While you are there, we can go shopping”, said one of them.
The two waited in the car while I rushed through the interview so as not to keep them waiting too long.
School Visit #2
Following the interview, we had a closing meeting at a local school for the Deaf where we were actively bringing Deaf and hearing students together so they can learn from and about one another. After briefly introducing themselves at the start of the meeting, the program officer fell asleep with her sunglasses on, and her assistant was (presumably) checking emails and text messages on her phone during the entire meeting. The program officer pulled me aside near the end of the meeting to inform me that she and her assistant were going to leave early. On their way out, they found a local member of the Ministry of Education and had a private conversation with him. The filmmaker and I saw the program officer and her assistant at the Kisumu and Nairobi airports. Needless to say, we didn’t have much to say to one another.
A More Collaborative Approach
For being day trippers, guests, briefcase tourists, visitors unfamiliar with the local context, the program officer and her assistant had a lot to say. First of all, they arrived late as they didn’t/couldn’t follow my advice on where to stay so they could spend more time in local schools. This limited their ability to learn what the community had done in relation to inclusive education since 2010.
The short time they had, they instead chose to spend offering non-constructive criticism without any workable alternatives. The program officer blamed and shamed the work because we were working in an institution where over 100 students with physical disabilities lived and suggested shutting down the special school immediately. While I do not disagree that these 100 students should be attending their home/village schools and living with their families, simply saying that an approach to inclusion is bad and attempting to shut it down has real and potentially dangerous consequences.
Yes, I agree that students with disabilities need to be raised with their families. Yes, teachers at special schools need to be reallocated to co-teach in inclusive schools. Yes, the message of inclusive education needs to be reworked in western Kenya so that this special school isn’t the only place where parents feel all students belong. Yes, our work in western Kenya is open to critique. By all means, offer suggestions, alternative perspectives and resources that have worked in other regions and can be adapted to fit the local context. However, do not come into a region and country about which you know little or nothing, arrive late to meetings, and heavily judge the community for their inclusive efforts that have been made since 2010 in the near absence of government support. Do not force one-sided Western views of disability “development” on situations you only read about while driving to a school for an initial visit. Offer something useful in return that promotes collaboration and an exchange of ideas. Offer something other than disrespect and naps during meetings. After all, we have the same goals, and there is more than enough work to go around. Let’s respectfully take communities where they are and want to be, celebrate the progress they have made, acknowledge the missteps, learn from one another, and work together to create an inclusive society that is truly open to everyone.
Brent Elder is Assistant Professor, Interdisciplinary and Inclusive Education at Rowan University, College of Education