Change on the Radio

poster for children in school

The power of media and radio is no illusion to grassroots group, The Federation of Disability Organizations in Malawi (FEDOMA). When a small primary school was using a former bathroom as a classroom for children with disabilities, they turned to the media to change it.

They started by conducting sensitization meetings with the head teacher, teachers and parents of disabled children, which went well. The head teacher promised to put the children in a better classroom similar to their able bodied counterparts.  However, when they followed up several months later, FEDOMA learned that the children were still learning in the "toilet-turned classroom." They took the story to the media for support and it was published in local newspapers and aired on several local radio stations.

The story quickly made headlines all over the country and was followed up by the Ministry of Education and Science and Technology and also the Ministry of Information. Airtel Malawi, an international mobile network, also followed up on the story by sending it along with a personal message to all their subscribers.

FEDOMA staff explained the problems children with disabilities encounter, “The main predicament that children with disabilities face is that old schools are not accessible and some teachers still need sensitization on how to assist learners with disabilities. This is augmented by the shortage of specialized teachers, which also affects the performance of some learners with disabilities because they have to depend on one itinerant teacher who supervises more than ten schools in one zone.”

If you're wondering who FEDOMA is, they're a network of organizations that equip people with disabilities to serve as lead advocates for their rights. In their words, they “act as a mouthpiece of the disabled in Malawi through specific advocacy and awareness campaigns.” Partnering with children’s rights advocates, they ensure that disability issues are mainstreamed into the activities of non-governmental and government organizations. They’re responsible for opening Malawi’s first Disability Resource Center and they host a weekly radio program in conjunction with the MBC national radio which has the largest coverage in the country every Sunday at 3.00 pm about issues related to disabilities.

They work with many communities throughout Malawi to develop specific campaigns. In each place, they form local committees of parents of children with disabilities, community members, and teachers. These committees then become an enduring support structure for families of children with disabilities. Their work changes how people feel about disabilities and dispels negative stereotypes. It has also created role models, people who are successful, independent and professional community members with a disability who speak at local schools and mentor children with disabilities.

Looking back on the success of their programs, FEDOMA says, “We have discovered that peoples’ behavior and attitudes towards children with disabilities is changing and people are becoming more knowledgeable about disability issues. For example, every time FEDOMA went to meet teachers, children and parents, they were fascinated about the role models that FEDOMA brought along. Initially, the children would follow people with disabilities and it was difficult to move around.  Now when the team goes to the same school such things are no longer happening because the community is now actively involved in disability issues. For example, some parents are now starting their own focus groups and teachers are sensitizing fellow teachers. You also find learners without disabilities assisting their disabled friends, pushing their wheelchairs, being their guides or reading aloud what is on the chalkboard or on charts if they are blind. Some traditional authorities are putting to task parents who are not sending their children to school.”

Aili Langseth, Firelight Program Officer said, “FEDOMA’s approach is one of empowerment, with a consistent and articulate focus on capability and rights, rather than charity. Support for FEDOMA demonstrates recognition and respect for human rights and human dignity, irrespective of physical and mental disabilities, but also becomes part of the voice and efforts of uplifting the lives of children that have been trapped in a net of negligence, isolation, and discrimination on the basis of disability.”

FEDOMA followed up with the teachers at the start of this story, who once used a former bathroom as a classroom, three months after the media frenzy. While at first they were not well received by a few teachers, they were then shown the new classroom that had ample space and accommodations for children with disabilities to learn well.