What being the first blind student in my school taught me

Ben Poggo Lou

Ben Poggo Lou is the Director of Inclusive Education in South Sudan. He tells how his experience as a blind student at a local school inspired him to try and change the system to include children with disabilities in mainstream education.

My visual impairment is what drives me. It motivates me, pushing me to work hard. And it stops me from being frustrated with the negative attitudes to disability I encounter while trying to make things better.

It also meant that I was the first blind student to attend my local school. And this taught me how valuable it is for children with disabilities to learn and socialise with everyone else. How crucial it is that they are not isolated in separate special schools. 
This is what set me on the path I am now. It pushed me to campaign for every child with a disability to get a good quality, inclusive education. And one that does not freeze them out from the rest of society. 

Ben Poggo

My education journey

I was still a teenager when I started advocating for the education of persons with visual impairment in Southern Sudan. At that time, schools for learners with disabilities were scarce. The special school I first went to in Juba was ultimately too expensive for my family to afford. There was no question of waiting for the funding and resources to attend a special school again. Had I postponed my education until we could, I suspect that I would have ended up begging on the streets as an adult. 
Instead, my parents fought for me to continue my education in our local school. Despite not having much support or technology, I gained two degrees and a diploma. I became the first teacher of blind students in the country. I now lead work to build inclusive education opportunities for the government of South Sudan.

But that isn’t all that going to a mainstream school did for me. It also meant that I was, in a word, included.

Keep in mind that I had no access to Braille. This meant that I had to work with other students to learn effectively. And so, my fellow students and I learned to support each other. It meant that I learned to grow up as part of a community, not a segregated community, but a South Sudanese one. It meant I was a part of society. I doubt this would have been true had I gone to a special school.

Being included in the mainstream

So I became passionate about ensuring that mainstream education included learners with disabilities. It can cost less than a specialist approach if effective. And it means that these learners grow up as part and parcel of their communities. 
This is what supporting learners with disabilities is about: the proper support. It is not, and should never be, about cloistering these students in separate schools where they will not interact with the rest of the community. Personally, I think this segregation is the root of many stigma and discrimination — it ‘others’ learners with disabilities. 
That’s not to say there aren’t other barriers to inclusive education in South Sudan. Stigma against people with disabilities is still alive and well, here as anywhere. Combatting it means working with parents and communities to raise their awareness.

We still have to find the funds to train teachers, social workers and other staff and secure educational materials. I was able to get where I am today partly through foreign aid. I gained scholarships from the Norwegian Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired after they began working in Juba in 1982 and from Open Society.

How I'm trying to change the system

Nowadays, I can approach inclusive education from the other side and influence the system. I can help children with disabilities attend their neighbourhood schools. As Director for Inclusive Education, I work with all stakeholders to promote inclusive education. With projects like Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS), we’ll start to see real change happening over the next five years.

Of course, the way we do things has changed since I received my scholarships, not least since COVID-19. But the issues are there – and everything I learned at school still rings as true today as it did in 1982. But I am excited that we now have the National Inclusive Education Policy, which launched in 2021.

We’re also working with the GESS team and other stakeholders to complete the National Inclusive Education Implementation Strategy. This will make a real difference for children with disabilities over the next few years.