Standing at the front of the class, Moussifa patiently recites the words written in chalk on the blackboard, words familiar to every child who is learning to read: “This morning, Aliou went to school. In his bag there is a pen, a notebook, a pencil, a slate, a pencil, and a book. His mother is happy.”
But Moussifa doesn’t utter a word. Instead, she makes precise, rapid signs with her hands, and when she stops signing, her classmates wave their hands in the air to congratulate her. Deaf since birth, Moussifa learned sign language at Kara Central School in the town of Kara, in northern Togo, with all of her classmates.
“To go to school with the other children, Moussifa had to be understood by everyone," says Tidénèbè Tagba, who teaches a class of 7- and 8-year-olds. “All of the teaching staff in the school have learned sign language, along with the pupils.”
According to Bénédicte Laré, head of Handicap International’s regional inclusive education projects, Kara Central School wasn't a always a model for inclusion. “Most children with disabilities in Kara have problems accessing education. They encounter resistance from parents. Some teachers refuse to include them in mainstream schools. The school infrastructure might be inaccessible, or a long way from home, or their parents might be poor.”
Moussifa was only able to enroll in primary school at the age of seven. Not only does is she deaf, she also comes from an extremely deprived background: she has lost her father, and now lives with a friend of the family, who didn’t have the money to enroll her in Kara Central School.
For Bénédicte, Moussifa is a good example of how it is possible for children with disabilities to attend school in Togo. “Moussifa was turned away by a lot of primary schools when she tried to enroll. The teaching staff were really reluctant, because of her disability and the fact that her family is poor,” she explains. “The school’s management team would usually direct her to a special school, which threatened to exclude her even further. Handicap International has carried out a lot of background work to raise awareness and train teaching staff from schools in three regions of Togo. One of the results has been teaching sign language to pupils and teachers at Kara Central School.
At the same time, the organization set up a network of mobile teachers specifically trained in disability to make it easier for children with disabilities to continue attending and succeeding at school. In 2015, 250 primary schools in Togo were provided with support by Handicap International, which has helped improve the schooling of more than 1,000 children with disabilities, including Moussifa.
Today, Moussifa has been fully integrated into her school. She gets good marks and is beginning to play games with her school friends, with unexpected results, explains Bénédicte Laré: “Since they learned sign language, the girls can talk to each other without their parents understanding what they are saying!”