Lesotho Responds to Disability

three childrenI just returned from visiting Firelight grantee partners in Malawi, Lesotho, and South Africa.  We try to visit grantee partners at least once a year because seeing groups in their communities shows us their impact in a way a project proposal cannot. It deepens our understanding of local context, brings light to intricacies and challenges faced by our partners, and also lets us develop a more personal relationship between the foundation and staff of the community-based organizations we fund. Since I’ve returned, one conversation has stood out loudly.  It comes from a visit in Lesotho.  Lesotho is a small, gorgeous, mountainous country challenged by poverty and difficult terrain.  Firelight has funded grassroots groups here since 2003, funding thirty-three groups and providing $192,000 in grants last year.

My visit was with Lesotho Society of the Mentally Handicapped Persons (LSMHP) where I met a volunteer who dedicates his time with LSMHP several times a week.  By trade he is an Occupational Therapist who works with families and children with physical disabilities.  His main goal is to help families create a safe, conducive environment for children to enhance their motor skills, physical control, and overall growth.  Recognizing that every family is unique, he differs his approach with each one.  Sometimes he helps caregivers create walking apparatuses from materials within the home, sometimes he teaches caregivers massage techniques for stiff muscles, but mostly he uses play as their treatment.  He uses play techniques to encourage the child’s muscle control and bonding between the child and caregiver.children playing chess

He makes home visits to children for at least one hour a day, three times a week.  These visits also educate caregivers so that the family gains basic skills to manage their child’s physical challenges.

We asked him what changes he sees after working with families.  He told me, “Working with these families has transformed their relationships.  Parents are initially scared of their own children, now they are empowered.”  What he said was so simple, and so utterly powerful.

Those three hours a week literally transforms lives in immeasurable ways.

LSMHP’s mission is to support parents of disabled children, and to empower their children to become as independent as possible.  Firelight supports LSMHP to provide trainings on small business development to parents.  These trainings create the means for caregivers to flexibly gain an income from their homes while taking care of their special-needs children.

LSMHP is one of those organizations with many accomplishments to brag about, but they also face many challenges.  For instance, there are no speech therapy services anywhere in Lesotho, a setback for children with such disabilities.  In addition, schools with special services for children with disabilities tend to be private or under resourced, creating real challenges for parents.  Teachers do not necessarily have the knowledge, resources or skills to manage special-needs students, not to mention that school infrastructures are rarely disability-friendly.  For these reasons, physically disabled students are often forced to stay at home, meaning that the caregiver must find ways to balance childcare with gaining income.  Overwhelmingly, LSMHP sees that these families are highly susceptible to severe poverty.

LSMHP faces these challenges day in and day out and tirelessly motivates parents, youth, community members, government, and many other players within Lesotho to support those marginalized by disabilities.  Their training, support groups, youth programs and networks with other national stakeholders create the mindset and the methods for children and families with disabilities to generate income, pursue an education, and develop relationships within their community that not only transform them, but transform the public’s image of disability.

As the LSMHP motto says, “Move forward despite difficulties.”