After studying law and social anthropology, Stéphanie soon developed an interest in education, non-discrimination and equality issues. Following a four-year stint as the manager of education research projects in Burkina Faso, in conjunction with stakeholders and beneficiaries in the sector, she worked on several local development projects in France before deciding, in May 2010, to join the Handicap International programme in Mali.
“Most people with disabilities in Mali live in extremely poor conditions. They have to deal with problems in every area of their daily lives, from social inclusion to the inaccessibility of services and transport,” explains Stéphanie. “The road system, for example, is not adapted to people with physical or sensory disabilities. There are no pavements or crossings in urban areas, transport is not adapted to disabled people and traffic lights are few and far between, making moving around difficult and often dangerous. Most public and private buildings are not accessible to people with disabilities. Disabled people also find it very hard to meet their basic needs, like washing and going to the toilet.” In Mali, like many other West African countries, Handicap International recognises the scale of the task ahead and has decided to translate its actions into long-term projects.
One of the major obstacles to the social inclusion of people with disabilities is a lack of access to education and training. “Education plays a decisive role in people’s lives. But in Mali, many schools are not accessible to people with disabilities. Mainly for practical reasons (classrooms are unsuited to wheelchair access, classroom lighting is not adapted to visually-impaired people, etc.) but also because teachers are unaware of, or not trained in, the inclusive education techniques that would enable a wider range of children (such as those with impairments, hyperactive or precocious children, or those suffering from trauma, etc.) to take part in their lessons. Our teams work with all education staff to provide adapted responses. Schools are put into contact with organisations specialising in the case-management of disability and together they discuss practical, technical solutions to these issues and explore ways of changing attitudes towards disability. Specialised organisations can translate written questions into Braille so that blind people play a full role in lessons, for example.” As well as finding solutions to practical problems, we need to change social perceptions of people with disabilities. “Disabled children are systematically exempt from sports but, depending on their impairment, there are ways of involving them.” Handicap International encourages teachers and sports educators to adapt their sessions to include children with disabilities. Inclusive events are also organised to show that people with disabilities can join in cultural and sporting activities.
The serious political, security and humanitarian crisis currently gripping Mali has led the organisation to refocus its activities and to launch an emergency response in three regions in the north of the country, and in aid of displaced persons in the south, while continuing its development projects for as long as possible. “Institutions continue to function in some of our intervention areas, and development needs have not gone away. However, a number of other needs - for emergency relief (food and sanitary aid, etc.) and rehabilitation (help restoring and restructuring the health and education systems), for example - have now emerged.” Building on its extensive work in the Timbuktu region and in-depth knowledge of local communities, Handicap International is currently distributing food and ensuring aid reaches those who need it most. At the same time, the Mali programme has provided a number of inclusion technicians, who are made available to NGOs, with training to ensure the emergency relief effort takes the needs of the most vulnerable groups into account. Handicap International is also planning to help health and education services cope with the influx of displaced persons. “For example, we are going to focus on including displaced children in schools, developing school canteens and reorganising the education system to find positions for teachers from the north who are currently out of work.” Handicap International’s current challenge, then, is to provide an emergency response without slowing the pace of its development efforts.