In Afghanistan, the IRC Helps the Disabled Get an Education
Ahmed Farid uses somewhat different skills than his classmates to follow the lecture. With the sharp end of a thick needle, the blind 22-year-old punches holes in Braille in a piece of paper.
At this school, part of a unique International Rescue Committee project, blind and deaf children study alongside other students. “This is completely new in Afghanistan,” says the IRC’s Karima Sorkhabi, who manages the program. “People with handicaps are normally shunned here. They are forced to sit at home and do nothing, and are rarely given the opportunity of an education.”
Ahmed’s family returned to Afghanistan three years ago from neighboring Iran, where Ahmed grew up a refugee in the slums outside Teheran.
“It was a hard life,” Ahmed recalls. “We lived in a small house and, being blind, I felt useless, as if I was in the way all the time. I couldn’t go to school and I was only allowed to do simple housework.”
The IRC works with local groups to identify disabled children and youth without access to schooling and has so far integrated some 50 disabled students like Ahmed into 25 schools around Herat. The IRC is training teachers to work with blind and deaf students and is helping to create an Afghan sign language.
“The deaf children are starting to communicate more and more every day,” says Abdul Ghani, an IRC program officer, who is the father of four deaf children. “We enrolled a nine-year-old girl who never spoke, not even to her parents. And she had never used sign language before. Now she talks, writes and reads.”
At first, teachers and headmasters were largely against mixed classes, says Sorkhabi. “They thought that it would be too hard to teach disabled children, that they were going to disrupt the class,” she says. “We had long meetings to convince both parents and teachers that this would work. And gradually we saw their attitudes change.”
Ahmed Sherifi, who teaches first-grade children in a dusty suburb of Herat, admits that he was skeptical when he was asked to receive two deaf students into his class. “I was afraid that it would slow things down for the other children,” he says. “But once they started, I realized that it wasn’t a problem and that it would be good for me and the rest of the class to learn sign language.”
Ghani agrees that the integrated schools are slowly making parents, teachers and students used to people with disabilities. “They see that being deaf or blind doesn’t mean that you can’t learn,” he says
Ahmed Farid is proof the approach is working. “Since I started in this school I have learned a lot,” he says. “I have met new “seeing” friends and they help me. And we learn from each other. For the first time in my life, I feel like I will be able to get a proper job and support myself, instead of only relying on others. I hope to continue to university and become a teacher.”