Normalising special needs: the Kabul school offering hope | Global education

Laughter and excited chatter burst out of the colourfully painted classrooms. In a quiet garden schoolhouse amid the jam-packed Afghan capital, Kabul, pupils run around, study and play in the country’s first official school for children with disabilities.

It’s a far cry from what most of these children have previously experienced. For many, it’s the first time in their lives they feel loved and accepted.

Afghanistan has one of the world’s largest proportions of people living with disabilities, according to a report from Human Rights Watch, but few services meet their needs.

More than 17% of Afghan children have a mild, moderate or severe disability, but stigma and resistance from schools to accept them means most have not been able to receive an education, according to the Asia Foundation. Children with the most severe difficulties are often neglected at home or left abandoned and uncared for.

Fatima Khalil school opened its doors in December and is now offering a safe environment for children who routinely face rejection. The tuition-free institute hopes to normalise special needs in the war-torn country, where almost 80% of adults have some form of impairment.

Each classroom is decorated with children’s paintings and filled with toys, schoolbooks and soft carpets. Children who live with all kinds of disabilities are placed in a grade depending on their level of ability and the amount of support they need.

Children eat their lunch at the Fatima Khalil school in Kabul. Each child is put in the most appropriate class, depending on their level of ability and the amount of support they need.
Children eat their lunch at the Fatima Khalil school in Kabul. Each child is put in the most appropriate class, depending on their level of ability and the amount of support they need. Photograph: Stefanie Glinski/The Guardian

The idea for the school was born out of tragedy: Fatima Khalil, a 24-year-old human rights defender, was assassinated by the Taliban in Kabul last June. Khalil had previously volunteered with the Enabled Children Initiative (ECI), a local charity working with children who live with disabilities.

Lael Mohib, ECI’s founder and director, says that in Afghanistan the biggest challenges for children with disabilities are stigma, shame and societal misunderstanding.

“When we establish such barricades, we close the door to opportunities in terms of creating programming and resources,” she says. “When most people think of disability, they think of inability, and that’s the root of many challenges people with disabilities face.”

After Khalil’s death, her family created a fund and partnered with ECI to set up the school, striving to fulfil Fatima’s dream.

“We currently have 34 students, but would like to expand to 50 by the end of the year,” says the school’s deputy administrator, Asya Ahmad, one of Khalil’s sisters. She says once word spread, applications soared. Fourteen of the pupils live in orphanages, after being left at hospitals or in cardboard boxes outside police stations shortly after they were born.

“Afghanistan’s school system is currently not prepared to include special-needs students,” says Ahmad. “We aim to eventually integrate some of our students into mainstream schools and hope to develop partnerships that encourage a more inclusive learning environment.”

Another issue that makes formal school attendance more difficult is that many children with disabilities are not registered with the authorities, often due to their families’ neglect or even shame of acquiring a tazkira, a national identification card, for them. This means they do not formally exist and so cannot obtain government services.

While such identification might be mandatory at some public schools, it is not required at Fatima Khalil school.

Farzad, 16, has Down’s syndrome and is still waiting for his ID card. His mother – injured during the war and now an amputee – has not been able to acquire it for him.

Belquis, another 16-year-old, is an energetic and ambitious girl who has perfected sign language and lip-reading and is determined to finish high school. She left her state school, because a hearing impairment left her unable to follow lessons. At Fatima Khalil school, she is catching up quickly and her teachers hope to establish partnerships with state schools that are willing to reintegrate special-needs students like her.

Tawab, 7, who was born with cerebral palsy, receives his lunch at the Fatima Khalil school in Kabul.
Tawab, 7, who was born with cerebral palsy, has lunch at Fatima Khalil school. ‘He should have been receiving therapy throughout his entire life,’ says his therapist, Mary Sadat. Photograph: Stefanie Glinski/The Guardian

Tawab, a seven-year-old with severe cerebral palsy, has just enrolled. Previously he barely left his house, and his mother largely negleced him after giving birth to a healthy second child.

Lying on a gym mat, Tawab’s muscles are tense, and his head – which he is unable to control himself – rests on a pillow.

“I want him to be able to eat by himself one day and I’d love for him to walk,” says his physical therapist, Mary Sadat, navigating the little boy through his exercises. Eighteen pupils receive regular physical therapy – most of them were born with cerebral palsy.

“He should have been receiving therapy throughout his entire life,” adds Sadat, who, like most of the other teachers at the school, previously worked with an aid organisation.

Sitting in one of the school’s lunchrooms, the warm spring sun flooding in, Ahmad says she wished Fatima could have seen the school – and the children’s smiles.

“This place offers us hope,” she says. “We hope we can contribute to normalising special needs in Afghanistan. We hope this can be the beginning of a movement for change.”

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