The Bridge over the Ditch and the Man outside the Window

Some of you may be aware that December 3rd is The UN International Day for Persons with Disabilities (IDPD). This date is becoming particularly significant as disability starts to come up the development agenda and organisations like Disability in Wales and Africa continue to promote inclusive practice. However, what does inclusion look like and how does it affect what we do as a Wales Africa sector? A common view of inclusion is one portrayed on the front of the DWA leaflet – a girl in a wheelchair sitting in a mainstream class. This may be simple to understand but does it do justice to the concept? I would like to tell you two stories, one from Kenya and one from Wales, which I hope will help to move our thinking forward.

The Kenyan story comers from 2002 and starts in a market town called Maua at an organisation called the Meru North Disability Community Centre. The Centres Occupational Therapist was called to Athiru Gaiti, a village in the then Meru North District, to assess a girl, who used a wheelchair and wanted to go to school. When the Occupational Therapist arrived in the village, he found the girl and her father in their homestead, a local primary school extremely near, but a big ditch in the road between the two venues. The father’s solution to the problem was to send his daughter to a special school. This would not only have been expensive, and probably requiring donor support, it would also have removed the girl from her community and passed the responsibility for her welfare onto someone else.

However, the OT noticed a bridge, in serious need of repair, which went across the ditch. He suggested a different approach to the problem. The family liaised with the community, explained the barrier that was hindering the girl going to school, and together mobilised workmen to repair the bridge. The girl started to attend the school, using the repaired bridge. Additionally, the community has a better bridge to get from one side of the village to the other. However, perhaps the most important outcome from this story is that the community owned, and took responsibility to solve, the problem that the girl faced in getting to school. A process from which everyone benefited.

The story above took place in East Africa where, as we generally understand, there is not the same level of disability support services that we have come to expect in Wales. We have technology, and vastly more funding to finance services, to enable increased independence. To what extent though, has this development separated disabled people, and their needs, from the rest of the community?

My second story is a personal one which happened, during late September 2013, in Llangynidr where I live. I had been asked to deliver a letter to a house around the corner. My helper was busy packing the car, in preparation for us to go away. Consequently, I decided to set off in my powered chair and deliver the letter by myself.

When I arrived at the house, I was inevitably hampered by a front doorstep which meant I could not get to the letterbox. As people can imagine, as a wheelchair user, I can be quite opinionated about front doorsteps! However, just across the road from the house is the village shop. So, rather than go back home and drag my helper away from the job of packing the car so as to post the letter through the letterbox, I decided to sit outside the shop window and wave my hand in the air. When the shop assistant saw me, they came out and I explained where the letter was meant to go. They were happy to oblige and a simple two-minute solution was activated. The task in question could have taken half an hour, if I had gone home, brought my helper, and so on. Incidentally, the reason I had to sit outside the shop was, well you guessed it, because of the doorstep!

Having specific services is crucial if independence for many disabled people is going to be achieved. However, if not handled with care and thought, those same services and technology can be a hindrance to inclusion. So often we assume that inclusive development costs a lot of money. Although I do not know how much it cost to repair the bridge, it would have been considerably cheaper than sending the girl to a “special school”! It also helped the community to learn a little about the barriers the girl, and others like her, face day by day.

Everyone became part of the solution. In the Welsh situation, taking a letter across the road to be delivered by the shop assistant, cost nothing and enabled me to feel part of the community. The change, in both scenarios, is in the way the problem was perceived and confronted. This change came out of a different way of understanding disability, as a Social rather than a Medical/Functional problem. This alternative understanding led to different solutions being sought.

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