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Breaking Barriers in Mental Health Education

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

Words by Irene Kigathi -Cohort 5 fellow TULEANE AFRIKA INITIATIVE

I was interviewing students with disabilities and their caregivers throughout June as research for my organization and also to fulfil my assignment on empathy as a Metis fellow.

The whole point of it was to understand the people we are creating solutions for and how we can better cater to their needs from their perspective. There are two stories that have stuck with me since then. They have helped me understand why empathy is important when seeking to solve problems.

During one of the interviews, I painfully watched a caregiver listen to a school administrator talk about transition and exit plan for her sister, a student at the institution. The sister, who has a learning disability, had been in the institution for a while and the institution felt it was time to transition her, as she had gone through all the classes that were required of her.

The conversation turned to a discussion on the history of the family. I noticed the girl becoming uncomfortable and wringing her hands. I felt sorry for the girl and pleaded for an extension of stay and possibly enrollment in a skill based course like homemaking. By the end of it all the girl was in tears.

Looking back, I see our faults. We did not think through what her dreams, needs or fears were. I keep going back to how we handled it and if our solution was centered on her needs. It was clear to me how much power we hold as people who have been entrusted with young lives.

The second story takes place in a school assembly.

Assembly time is precious in any school. Even more so, a boarding school of students with developmental disabilities. As I prototype the curriculum on Functional Living Skills, I love listening to the stories shared during Assembly.

As we broke for end of term break, we inquired about the students who wanted to remain in school during the holidays. A young girl explained that school was the only place she was assured of 3 meals in a day. Her culture expects her to already have a suitor but she feels unworthy because of her disability.

All these are issues that need to be addressed to accommodate this young girl, to feel appreciated and seen. I am learning that as an education innovator supporting learners with disability, I need to walk the journey of the caregiver/teacher before being quick to provide.

I am motivated to create a solution that hinges on what the teacher sees, what the caregiver notices and how to merge the two to benefit the student. To hear everyone out, their grief of what would have been, mourning the path that should have been taken, and the dreams that died.

As I train a team to work alongside me, I see the need to search deeper and understand the needs of the children I am serving and what the caregiver is looking for.

What if we created a world without barriers for complex mental abilities?

I hope we can see opportunities where others see barriers, learn to do small things with great love and not fear to fail often. I hope to create a world without barriers for individuals with complex mental abilities.

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