He is seated on a mat in a dusty church that doubles as a classroom, taking his school end of year examination. Around him is a flurry of activity as his classmates play, having already completed their exams. He has been given extra time to finish because he uses his feet to write, hence is very slow.
An hour later, a little boy of nine years rushes to the front of the church pushing a wheelchair, and from the class, another boy also nine, emerges carrying Abbey in arms. Together, they gently place him comfortably in the wheelchair and push him towards the play area.
Twelve-year-old Abbey Madanda is a pupil at St. Kalooli Katagwe Keera Primary school in Nakaseke District, Uganda. He is one of the few children living with disability that have been given the chance to have an education. Many children with disabilities in Uganda have been abandoned and treated as outcasts –isolated by family members and their communities. They have been made to feel unwanted and a burden.
“As Save the Children Uganda, we don’t have internal capacity to handle children with disabilities but in the schools we support, there are children with disability/impairments that are part of the inclusive education.
In such cases, we work through our partners, one being Uganda Society for Disabled Children (USDC), to build capacity, train our staff and the teachers on how to handle children with special needs. That way we are able to identify these children and help ease their learning,” says Flavia Bakundana, Education Specialist.
“Our staff has been trained to look out for children such as Abbey and that’s how he came to our attention,” adds Flavia.
Abbey Madada, 12, has a smile and an aura about him that reaches out to you and pulls you to him
Smiling his way into your heart
When Abbey was born, he was the little pink snugly bundle of joy. However, a few months later, the bundle of joy turned into one of concern.
“At just four months old, his mother (my cousin) noticed that the bones in his arms were not like those of other children. They were very soft and starting to twist,” says Josephine Namusi, Abbey’s aunt-turned-guardian.
“She took him to hospital, but the doctors didn’t diagnose him with any kind of sickness. At six months old, his legs started getting the same issue as the arms, and that’s how Abbey became the way he is. He can’t walk or use his arms/hands to do anything,” she adds.
When it was realized that Abbey had been born with a disability, his father fled the home, leaving him alone with the mother. The mother got frustrated with the child and abandoned him at his grandmother’s home.
Abbey uses his feet to write
We all need a hero
Abbey has so many heroes, but he is his first hero. His optimism about life tugs at the heart. He has a winning smile that one can get lost in. You just want to bundle him to your heart and protect him. But I’m sure that is something he wouldn’t take kindly to because he is intensely independent.
“I want to be a doctor. I will treat people who have problems with their bones,” he says.
Abbey Madada was brought to the attention of save the Children by her aunt, turned guardian, Josephine Namusi
Abbey’s other hero is his aunt Josephine Namusi, who is a teacher at St. Kaloori Katagwe Keera Primary school, where Abbey is presently a pupil. A single mother of three, Josephine gets a meagre salary from her teaching job which she supplements with farming on the side to help raise her family of eight. Her husband left her when she took on the responsibility of Abbey and his cousin John Paul.
“The day Abbey got his uniform, he told me; ‘Mum, I will read so much, when I get money, I will buy you a house, because you have helped me so much,” recalls Abbey’s aunt, with tears in her eyes.
It is Ms Josephine that brought Abbey’s plight to the attention of Save the Children when she approached Elizabeth Nassuna, a Save the Children Project Officer for Education in Luwero District.
“I told her about my nephew who wanted to go to school but that he was disabled. I told her, he can’t walk, he can’t hold anything, and he can’t help himself to eat or even remove his clothes. She insisted that I bring the child to them,” she says.
“I brought the child to Save the Children offices. They were moved by Abbey’s enthusiasm towards life. They asked me if I was willing to stay with him. I was more than ready to stay with him. With the support of Save the Children, we approached the Head teacher of St. Kalooli Katagwe Keera Primary school, Deogratious Mubiru and told him about the child. He told me to bring the child and he started school.
He told me they would make adjustments to the toilet in order to make his special, and promised that he would assist in transporting him to hospital should he fall sick. With this support, Abbey started school this year in Primary One.”
Within a few months of starting school, Save the Children, through one of the partners ACODEV, procured a wheelchair for Abbey.
This wheel chair has done more than just make Abbey’s movements easier, it has given him life.
Every day, before and after class, Gideon and John, Abbey's friends, help him onto his wheelchair and they push him to wherever he wants to go
Meet Abbey’s self-appointed handlers
It was hard on Abbey’s aunt when she had just brought him to live with her. With no training on how to handle his case, she was scared she would fail him.
“I had so many challenges when I had just brought him to live with me. I would carry him everywhere - to the toilet, to class, to the play area,” says Josephine, who now Abbey calls Mummy. “But now everyone is helping out. His friends John Muhumuza, Gideon Muhanguzi and his cousin John Paul took over. Before he got a wheelchair, they would come home and carry him to class,” says Josephine.
Muhumuza John, 9, wants to be a doctor. Given the impressive way he handles Abbey, the world will be a better place with him as a doctor. “Abbey can’t walk, so he needs my help and I give it,” he says.
Gideon Muhanguzi, 9, wants to be a teacher because he adores teachers. “Before Abbey got a wheel chair, he could not move from one place to another, so I would carry him. Now I carry him only to his wheelchair and then I push,” he says with pride.
Challenges that he still faces
Abbey Madada is a happy child, his wholesome smile tells you. He refuses to let his disability rob him of his childhood. He likes playing with the other children at the swings. “I also like it when they ride in my wheelchair,” he says with a shy smile.
John Paul Kitakka, 6, is in middle class (Nursery School) but he has taken on the responsibility of being his cousin Abbey's handler
But as expected, Abbey faces challenges with his disability. For example, he has to sit on the floor to enable him to write with his feet. “The class is dusty, so my books get dirty,” he says “Also, I feel bad when the other children finish doing their work and go out to play while I stay behind to finish my work,” he adds.
Children with disability and education
Anthony Ssentongo, Abbey’s favourite teacher, says, “When he started here, Abbey felt lost. Being the only child with disability in his class made him a loner. But when he realized that the other children were going out of their way to make his life easier, he came out of his shell. I give him extra time and try to help him catch up with the rest when he feels left behind. He has friends that always make sure that he is okay, and Abbey is lucky to have them. They have made him belong!”
Abbey Madada poses with his classmates at St Kalooli-Katagwe Keera Primary School
However, Abbey still needs extra time and remedial classes to ease his learning.
Children living with disabilities are frequently trapped in a vicious cycle of exclusion from education due to lack of necessary support and the means for equal participation.
They feel left out in education simply because fewer schools are equipped to handle their needs in an inclusive classroom. While all government-aided schools in Uganda are supposed to carry out inclusive education; the schools are not facilitated to handle the special needs of these children and the teachers are not trained to handle these special needs.
As such, learners like Abbey do not go to school or enter only for a few years, or become drop-outs or ’pushed-outs’, without their needs having been met.