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Kenya’s disabled children left behind


Kikoyi, Kenya – The healed sores are noticeable when Vincent stops crawling. Born with spina biffida, he is unable to walk at the age of four years old.

Doctors want to fit Vincent with leg braces to help him possibly walk. The total cost, 1,000 KSH (~$12) is too expensive for his parents. His mom is barely able to pay for the two-hour travel to the Kijabe clinic in Eldoret for a check-up each month.

So, he still crawls around the family property. The wear from the crawling leaves a chalky white mark on his knee caps. Once infected sores caused by gashes from crawling and constant pressure on his shins are a reminder of the hazards of getting around.

Vincent should start school next year, but going to the public primary school is not an option. He will get little or no support for his disability and will distract fellow students, says his mother. There are limited services and medical support for the disabled in Kenya.

Children like Vincent are being left behind.

The 2009 Kenyan census estimates that there are 1.3 million disabled people in the country, only three percent of the population. Though the numbers are hard to verify because some children with disabilities are kept hidden and out of family counts.

The new Kenyan government, led by President Uhuru Kenyatta, says that disabled are among its priority groups for improving healthcare. The first healthcare goal of the coalition government listed on his website reads:

Achieve free primary healthcare for all Kenyans, starting with women, expectant and breast-feeding mothers and persons with disabilities by increasing health financing from 6% -15%.

The announcement of free maternal healthcare by the government is one step towards achieving the promise. A visit to Kenyatta National Hospital, the nation’s oldest hospital located in Nairobi, and to Western Kenya reveals a system that falls well short of President Kenyatta’s ambitions.

Stigma plays a role in the discrepancy and adds to the problem. Families will keep children born with disabilities out of sight from their neighbors. Unlike Vincent’s parents, they do not even consider the option of education. Some are kept tied up and others in cages.

Myths about the causes of disability persist. In one case, neighbors blamed the epilepsy of one girl on bad spirits. They claimed that a murder committed by a previous generation was being punished through the convulsions. The family did not seek out modern medicine until traditional methods were exhausted.

Those that get care at health centers are often unsupported when they return home. Kenyatta hospital staff described how people with disability attend a few therapy sessions to address the immediate problem, but are on their own when in their homes. For children like Vincent, the cost of traveling to the nearest clinic is too great even when care is free.

Sylvia and her mother.
Sylvia and her mother.

Children that make it to school face additional challenges. Sylvia, 10, has downs syndrome and is enrolled in the special unit at Malava primary school. About 20 students with various disabilities have the opportunity to receive an education.

Sylvia is small for her age, a result of the downs syndrome, and is a voracious eater of rice, says her mother. Though much cheaper than private schools, her mother struggles to pay the 4,500 KSH in school fees for Sylvia’s education. Her older sister, Vivian, is a star student. She graduated primary school top of her class and is attending one of the top private schools in the region.

Mama Sylvia kept Vivian from attending secondary school at first. The tens of thousands of school fees she would have to pay would be too much. Fortunately, a group of American evangelicals stepped in and are paying for Vivian’s education. She is currently ranked third in her class.

Cerebral palsy is not holding Innocent back. She learned to write, despite struggling with fine motor skills as a result of the CP. She too can’t walk and her mother must carry her too and from school each day. It means that she has to miss school if something comes up.

A workbook is filled with four letter words in English and Swahili. She takes the book and starts writing numbers in order from one to twenty. It is slow work and the numbers at time run together, but she still manages to rank top ten in her class.

Innocent, Sylvia and Vincent all hold the potential to excel live productively, but the obstacles in front of them are immense. All struggle to get to school each day. If they are unable to get a basic education the challenges will grow.

Sylvia competed in the regional Special Olympics a few months back. She did so well in the shot-put and the sprint that she qualified to compete in Nairobi. Her mother speaks proudly of Sylvia’s accomplishments, but the conversation makes its way back to the struggle for fees.

“Sylvia has to stay in school,” says her mother.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]