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Sightsavers Reports

A tale of two teenagers

May 2014
A young girl raising her hand in a busy classroom.

When you meet someone who is realising their potential because they’ve been given access to education, it’s inspirational.

Our team met 13-year-old Jenneh in Sierra Leone: she was bubbly and cheeky, and the headmaster of her school glowed with pride about her progress.

A young girl sitting in a classroom.

Meet Jenneh

Jenneh is blind, but school has still made a huge difference in her life. She’s been taught how to type and read Braille, and she has lots of friends – “they love me and I love them” – she’s even able to navigate her way around independently.

Her favourite class, or as she sweetly calls it “my lovely subject”, is social studies, and she confidently participates in the classroom. “I’m doing well in school,” she says. “When the teacher asks questions, I’ll stand up, I’ll answer. The teachers love me so much for that, because I’m well capable in class.”

Jenneh is more than capable – she consistently gets top marks, and her teacher says some of the other students copy from her! In the future Jenneh wants to be a teacher, and we have no doubt she’ll be a brilliant one.

Nabirye sits alone at home.

Meet Nabirye

By contrast, meeting 15-year-old Nabirye in Uganda was disheartening. Where Jenneh has had opportunity, Nabirye has only experienced exclusion.

When she lost her sight aged nine, following an infection, she had to drop out of school immediately as they didn’t have the equipment or teachers to support students with disabilities. “It was the only school I could afford. My parents had no money to take me to other schools, because they were using all the money to take me to the hospitals.”

Since then, her life has been very different: “I felt so bad leaving school. Now I don’t do anything, I just stay at home. When I was at school I liked science and English, I wanted to be a lawyer, but I have been a long time out of school now so I don’t think I can anymore.”

Jenneh smiles in the classroom during a lesson at school, while Nabirye looks sad as she stands outside her home.

The impact of inclusion and exclusion

Jenneh and Nabirye will both face challenges in their lives because of negative attitudes to disability – but for Jenneh, an education means her future is wide open. She’ll have the chance to train for a career, earn an income and support herself and thanks to her teachers, she’ll have the self-belief to set goals and achieve them.

For Nabirye, it’s a very different story. As things stand, her education isn’t likely to resume and she’ll probably waste the next few years isolated at home while her peers continue to learn. Her already low self-confidence could plummet further, it’ll be hard for her to make friends and she might come to believe, as her community does, that she has nothing of worth to offer and no hope of earning an income.

At 15 years old, she still has enormous potential, but with every day out of education a bit more of it is lost.

Jenneh and Nabirye’s lives show just what an incredible difference an education makes to children with disabilities. Right now in developing countries, there are few Jennehs, and hundreds of millions of Nabiryes. There aren’t the words to adequately sum up what a devastating waste of potential this is.

The only way this situation will ever improve is if disability is made a priority in global aid. If it isn’t, nothing will change – we’ll see more and more stories like Nabirye’s, and young people like Jenneh will continue to be the exception rather than the rule.

Sightsavers’ Put Us in the Picture campaign calls for all people to have the opportunity to go to school, find work and participate fully in their communities. Join us and help make it a reality!

We campaign for equality for people with disabilities

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