West Africa: Breaking down barriers so kids can attend school

In West Africa, millions of children don’t complete elementary school. Some have never been to school. HI estimates that a third of these children have a disability. Our inclusive education program, which runs in nine West African countries, aims to ensure that all children have the opportunity to learn, play, and make friends at school and feel valued in their communities.

Why do children with disabilities find it so difficult to access education? Meet Samadou, an energetic seven-year-old boy from Tenkodogo in Burkina Faso who was born with one leg much smaller than the other. His story shows us the complexities behind a seemingly simple ambition and how HI is helping break down barriers.

Hidden from View

The first challenge in bringing a child with disabilities to school is to find them. Children with disabilities are more likely to be kept hidden at home and be missing from official records. There are many reasons for this, but often a family is afraid of how a child will be accepted socially.

This was the case for Samadou. Adults and children in his area referred to him by his disability rather than by his name. His mother was scared to send him to school to be bullied and wanted to protect him at home.

This is why HI uses an approach known as community based rehabilitation (CBR) to help break down prejudices and stigmas against people with disabilities. Being included at school requires being accepted more broadly. We work with parents, teachers, and community groups to educate them about the rights of people with disabilities.

We have also been working with the government for several years to improve surveying methods and national data collection so that we can understand the big picture of disability and education in Burkina Faso and find every child.

Lacking Specialized Care

When HI meets a child with a disability, they may not have accessed important health or social care for many years. Our priority is to make sure they are physically and mentally ready to attend school.

For Samadou, this meant providing him with an adapted prosthesis so that he could walk to school independently. It also allows him to play soccer and make friends.

For children with learning difficulties, we work with parents to help them reassess the need for school. Negative perceptions of disability mean that families may underestimate a child and believe that they are not capable of learning or that an education will not help them later in life. We challenge these perceptions and help parents to see what their child may be capable of, given the right support.


Teachers are often anxious about accepting a child with a disability in their classroom, fearing that the child may need too much of their time and cause disruption. They may lack  teaching strategies as well as the physical resources to make learning practical.

HI has made sure that there is an inclusive education module at national teacher training schools so that most teachers have a strong foundation in how to welcome a child with a disability. To reinforce this, we have integrated a cohort of visiting teachers who have been extensively trained in providing one-to-one support. They are able to help children with visual or hearing impairments with braille and sign-language, for example.

Samadou has been working with a visiting teacher since he started attending his local school. Together, they have developed an education plan that is adapted to his needs and are aiming to make the school more physically accessible for him. He is able to attend all of the same classes as his peers and is progressing well. Most importantly, he is involved in activities outside of school and can be seen chasing lizards with his friends or speeding along on the back of his brother’s bike!

Changing Lives

HI was recently awarded the Knight’s title in the Order of Academic Palms of Burkina Faso in recognition of our work for the inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream schools. Our Inclusive education projects are helping 170,000 children across West Africa.