Kimathi (not his real name) shrieks with laughter, awkwardly clapping his hands and honking as his fellow students struggle to guess the animal in the picture.
They are playing ‘Guess what?’ a classic nursery game. The game challenges students to think critically, learn new stuff, and improve listening ability and comprehension. Toddlers love this game. Only Kimathi isn’t a toddler. He is in a special school and will turn 22 in June this year. Kimathi is not alone at his school.
There are at least 15 students with varying levels of mental handicaps, from dyslexia, autism spectrum disorders to genetically inherited mental retardation.
Some are high functioning and are able to act “normal” others (like Kimathi) are here for integration into normal society, but in actual sense they are there because they have nothing better to do.
The facility educates special students using a different syllabus since some of them can’t cope with the normal curriculum. “Each day is a learning process for these children. Having interacted with them, we have come to understand that through constant training and practice, they can learn and become responsible people,” their teacher, Norah Mwendi says.
Physical and mental handicaps have long been a taboo subject in society, where the idea of normalcy is rigidly interpreted. Mwendi recounts just how Kimathi became part of them.
“When his brothers and sisters had friends visiting their home, they would tell him to get lost. Their friends never even knew he existed,” she says. Kimathi never went to school.
“His sister alerted us about her brother’s situation,” says Mwendi. The sister, who had learned about the school through a friend, noticed Kimathi liked machines. “He would repair their ‘dead’ laptops and once in a while the TV.
That’s when she decided to introduce us to the parents whom we talked to and were surprisingly willing to surrender Kimathi to us,” Mwendi says. Kimathi joined the school when he was 14 years.
While times are different now, children with physical disabilities are still openly discriminated against. “Mental handicapped are even more taboo than those with physical disabilities because they can be hidden.
Somebody without the use of their legs cannot hide this fact, but parents can easily deny that there is a problem with their child if the problem isn’t visible, such as schizophrenia,” says teacher Mwendi. Mwendi wants to draw back the curtain society had imposed on mental health issues, in the hope of greater understanding and acceptance.
“We want to change the fact that children with physical or mental handicaps are enrolled in special schools (if they’re put in schools at all), never to interact with normal children,” she says. Adding, “Although the special children are in different classrooms, they share the same field and same facilities with normal children.”
However, where do these students go to upon graduation? “Well, their choices are limited; They either work for government-run programmes that pay poorly or sometimes work for free, or stay at home.
Neither are good options, so we need to implement programmes meant to benefit handicapped individuals. This includes the integration of disabled persons into the public school system,” she says.
However, it still remains clear that for the most of these programmes have had little or no effect given that there is noticeable absence of disabled people in the job market. By integrating disabled students, children today aren’t growing up with the stereotypes that their parents did, such as intellectually disabled students are disruptive, or that by including them their own education will suffer.
However, while the normal students are willing to accept the intellectually disabled, they aren’t willing to do more than greet them outside of school. So what does this mean for students like Kimathi?
“At our school, one or two of them have “normal” friends, about half of them are friends with each other, and the rest have no social interaction at all. For the most part, the mentally disabled students who are more in control of their actions fair better, with the majority of the students saying that they are fun to hang around.
As much as Kimathi and others are part of a school system, they will never truly be a part of it. It is likely that after he leaves school, he will live at home and passed off as the “shy” son.