The Sierra Leone Inclusion Project (SLIP)
Our work in Sierra Leone began with a visit to the capital – Freetown, a city of close to a million people. In this area, it is estimated that there are over 50,000 disabled young people. While recognising the capital city’s extensive poverty and the desperate circumstances disabled people face, we realised the acute need for projects in the more isolated parts of the country. This includes Makeni, which is Sierra Leone’s fifth largest city.
In Makeni – like everywhere in Sierra Leone - medical, social, and therapeutic services are virtually non-existent. To meet the needs of disabled children and young people in Makeni, we partnered with Mary Penn-Timity and Alice Browne – the Founding Directors of the Sierra Leone Autistic Society. Mary and Alice are Sierra Leonean and are both qualified social workers with extensive experience in the UK and USA. Mary is a mother to a child with severe autism.
As part of their work in Makeni, Mary and Alice encountered desperate families of disabled children without access to any support in keeping their children safe, happy, and healthy. Recognising these families’ acute need for help, it was clearly necessary to initiate a project in Makeni in addition to the Freetown Inclusion Project, in order to provide parents of disabled children with a viable ‘life-supporting’ alternative. The SLIP launched in April 2019, and is already improving the lives of many disabled children and their families.
The SLIP provides:
The SLIP has already registered close to 100 disabled young people for playschemes in Makeni. These playschemes, staffed by young community volunteers, offers disabled children the opportunity for interaction and play with others which is vital to their development, and acts as a hub for the delivery of other community-based services. We look forward to replicating this service in Freetown.
Disabled children are often at the back of the queue when it comes to receiving medical attention - our Medical Support Programme seeks to change this. But even non-disabled children may benefit from our programme. Imagine living with a broken leg for four years. Due to the lack of affordable, quality health care in Sierra Leone, this is a daily reality for many children. Even relatively minor medical problems often go without any appropriate attention. This exacerbates the problem and results in a disproportionate impact on the child. These children are then stigmatised and marginalised. To mitigate this, our playschemes allow for informal assessment of children’s healthcare needs within an accessible community setting. Outreach medical services are provided to address the urgent needs of many of those registered with us. This support is made possible through SLAS’ relationship with a trusted GP who will provide treatment or refer us to appropriate services. In a country where there are only 200 doctors to serve a population of over seven million, we are incredibly fortunate for this level of support.
Parent Support and Community Awareness
Parent Support Groups can be a lifeline to carers of disabled children; they are an important arena for parents to give and receive support, share experiences, and learn about children’s impairments. The SLIP holds a Parent Support Group in Makeni twice a month, where a trained counsellor is in attendance to provide therapy and psycho-social support. This element of our provision aims to raise community awareness of disability, thereby moving towards a more inclusive community, and away from negative traditional attitudes and practices. We aim to expand and increase this key service as the year progresses.
No more than a handful of disabled children in Makeni or Freetown currently attend any of the local schools. The SLIP aims to improve the almost non-existent participation of disabled children in education, by ending their isolation and assessing their educational needs and capabilities. Currently, mainstream schools are severely ill-equipped and under-skilled to include disabled children. As the SLIP grows, we will work with local schools to establish ‘Inclusion Clubs’ (groups of non-disabled children in schools who advocate for their disabled peers) and project volunteers who will act as classroom assistants to support disabled children in school, as appropriate. For many children, the supportive, stimulating and immersive environment provided by the playscheme will be the most appropriate educational experience.