Our best kept secret

25 November 2018

By Neil Heslop

Neil Heslop

Most people, whether a parent or a politician, understand the critical value of education. It transforms the lives of individuals and the vitality of communities, tackling the causes of poverty and intolerance. Yet disabled children are sadly still denied this basic right at unacceptably high levels in many countries.

For nine in ten children with disabilities in the world — education plays no part in their lives. That’s around 25 million children who don’t get to school at all.  A disproportionate 15 million are girls. This has a profoundly damaging impact on their independence, their  ability to support themselves, or their basic dignity and choices founded on  equal relationships and community participation.

Even worse, some children with disabilities can find themselves hidden away by families, shunned and isolated in their communities because of social stigma. All too often children with disabilities are written off before their lives have barely started.

The charity I am proud to lead, and whose founder inspired me with his pioneering vision of a better, fairer world, is working hard to change this for good.  I began to lose my sight at 15, becoming blind in the first year of university. I benefited in countless ways from education and the thought of any child being denied a school place is just wrong.

Two children living with disabilities learning at a school in Zambia having been helped into education by Leonard Cheshire

The positive story of Leonard Cheshire is relatively well known. We are a charity founded on a remarkable man’s human kindness, courage and respect for all.  But the international work of our charity is arguably its best kept secret, despite always being an integral part of our work.  Our global perspective and local community approach goes back a long way.

After providing residential care for disabled people in the UK in the immediate aftermath of World War II, international projects followed quickly. The first Leonard Cheshire home was set up in India in 1955, followed soon by others in that country and elsewhere. 

The charity has now developed into a progressive international and UK operation that creates opportunities for disabled people to live the lives they choose. 

The Leonard Cheshire charity has changed enormously in the way we support communities internationally. We do not run homes but design life changing programmes with our partners, working in Africa and Asia side-by-side with organisations that are led by people with disabilities.

We are renowned for a focus on supporting girls with disabilities and their families.  Our education programmes have supported nearly 33,000 girls and boys with disabilities to gain and retain a place at mainstream primary schools. 

Building on this proven model, which has been particularly successful in Kenya, we are now extending our work in Zambia. Half of the children with disabilities there have never been to school. Few appropriately trained teachers, a lack of accessible school buildings, social attitudes and stigma are among the barriers that deny these children an education.   

So far we have helped secure school places for 1,500 children with disabilities in 60 schools in Zambia.  

We must do more for others denied the opportunity to progress by challenging attitudes. We now have the chance to extend our work to the Eastern Province. We want to get 750 more children with disabilities into school for the first time in this area, working with 30 primary schools. For some children this may just require the provision of mobility aids, or technology. We will also train 100 teachers and education officials, leaving a legacy of inclusive learning. 

With your help we can continue this vital work transforming lives and communities for good.

Thank you.

Neil Heslop is CEO at Leonard Cheshire

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