Belal bursts into a fit of laughter as his mother stands proudly by him.
“He is only 12 years old and he already competed on a national level. He won first and second prizes in running and ball throwing in a national competition for persons with disabilities. He took his first trip without me to Cox’s Bazar for BRAC’s retreat in 2016. I am so proud of him. It was very hard for him growing up. As a mother, it was hard to watch. He was bullied by other children. No school accepted him. He could not even button his shirt. I felt helpless, but I stayed patient. It was incredible to see him grow confident and make friends. I am happy as long as he is happy and smiling.”
Belal is one of more than 1.5 billion people in the world who live with some form of a disability. He has Down’s Syndrome, which means he experienced delays in his physical growth and has mild to moderate intellectual disability.
Belal was born and raised in Korail, one of the biggest slums in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The slum covers an area of 100 acres with 250,000 people living in it. Growing up, Belal was often described as pagol by his neighbours, which means ‘mad’ in Bengali – a term most people used to describe children and people with disabilities.
“Most people do not understand that they actually have a disability,” says Limia Dewan, senior manager of BRAC Education Programme’s persons with disabilities unit.
Bangladesh was among the first countries to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007; committing to promote the protection and ensure the full, equal enjoyment of all human rights of people with disabilities. With the approval of two new laws in 2013, the government and NGOs have been focusing more on issues surrounding people with disabilities.
A vast majority of children with disabilities never attend formal education despite Bangladesh’s remarkable success in enrollment rates. Those who do, drop out shortly after. This is due to the absence of disability-friendly approaches in education, preconceived negative notions of their abilities, and overall inaccessible school infrastructure. Ultimately, these bar them from realising their potential, and drastically limit their roles in community in the long run.
Belal has been a student of BRAC’s neuro-developmental disability centre in Korail since he was eight years old. The centre sits in the corner of an open field with the sun streaming in into its play area. The 20 students at the centre learn to read and write, and are taught about ethics and manners.
Belal developed his cognitive, sensory and motor skills by using a range of materials and therapy, under the supervision of a trained teacher and caregiver. The centre has three rooms dedicated to academics, sensory stimulation and therapy, along with a space to play. The children play sports, and are given meals, which is also an important aspect of the rehabilitation process.
“Even teaching the children to not make a mess when they eat is crucial for their social integration,” explained Limia. “Most of them have made vast improvements since their first day at the centre.”
There are now 200 students in 11 of our neuro-developmental disability centres across Bangladesh, jointly run by BRAC’s education programme and health programme. The centres are also spaces where parents can share their experiences, and get guidance on how to help their children with day-to-day activities. An important aspect of the initiative is to sensitise the people and community around them to understand and support them.
BRAC’s education system is currently serving nearly 43,000 children and young people with disabilities across Bangladesh. We ensure their access to pre-primary and primary education with an inclusive approach, focusing particularly on those from marginalised families or living in remote areas.
Zaian F Chowdhury is the communications portfolio lead for learning and innovation of BRAC Communications.
Chandra Chakma is a deputy manager of communications of BRAC’s education programme.