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Social Service Workers in Haiti Promote a More Inclusive Society for Children with Disabilities
Guest blog submitted by Betsy Sherwood, Head of Programs for CBM Country Office in Haiti & Ambassador of the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance
December 3rd is always one of my favorite days in the calendar year - it’s the day those of us in the disability and human rights sectors come together to celebrate International Day for Persons with Disabilities. In many countries where I have worked, this tends to be a very inspiring day, one meant to reflect on the achievements made by persons with disabilities and to advocate for more progress in the coming year.
This year’s theme is “Achieving 17 Goals for the Future We Want” – drawing attention to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals within the 2030 Agenda, a global framework for development.
While significant efforts have been made since the UN started celebrating this day 24 years ago, we cannot ignore that children with disabilities still remain one of the most marginalized and excluded groups in society.
Here in Haiti, many children with disabilities face daily discrimination and are often not able to realize their full rights to education, family, and healthcare. To the dismay of many of us in the social service workforce, children with disabilities remain less likely to attend school, access medical services or have their voices heard in society.
While the statistics and stories can feel daunting, there are many promising initiatives happening around the globe to promote the rights of children with disabilities. There are also important ways that those in the social service workforce can work to ensure that all children, including those with disabilities, have the opportunity to live up to their full potential.
In my daily work, I have the privilege of collaborating with a motivated group of local social workers who have dedicated their professional lives to working on behalf of children with disabilities in Haiti. This week, I sat down to chat with my colleague, Philogene Edmonds, to learn more from him about his experience as an advocate for children with disabilities. Philogene is a Social Worker by training and serves as Program Coordinator for CBM-Haiti, guiding all of our programs related to child protection and inclusive education. Since the January 2010 earthquake struck Haiti, he has worked tirelessly to ensure that children with disabilities have equal access to all essential services. Below are a few highlights from our conversation:
Q: What role can social service professionals play in improving the lives of children with disabilities?
A: We have a critical role to play as it is often on us to advocate for and defend the rights of those who are most vulnerable. I have witnessed firsthand how our workforce has been able to bring attention to the needs of children with disabilities. Here in Haiti, we have had positive influence on key child protection and education actors, using our professional knowledge to encourage them to build programs that are more inclusive for children with disabilities. After the earthquake, we advocated for disability inclusive child-friendly spaces, we trained frontline protection workers on the rights of children with disabilities and we pressured education actors at all levels to work on inclusive education initiatives.
As social workers, we also have very specific skills and training that allow us to work effectively with families. I’ve learned that one of the most important ways I can support a child with a disability is by also providing good support to their family members. By encouraging parents and caregivers of children with disabilities through counseling and coaching, I have seen many positive results. For example, I’ve watched parents become more confident and develop better coping mechanisms, I’ve seen children become more integrated into their families, and ultimately, in the communities where we have worked. I’ve noticed less children with disabilities being abandoned or placed in institutional care. Now, we just need to do a better job of tracking and documenting our successes – those in academia need to join alongside us to help us develop evidence and show what works best in the field.
Q: How has working with children with disabilities impacted you as a professional?
A: I have learned so much since I started working with children and adults with disabilities. I now am more open minded and always understand that no matter how tough a situation seems, there is potential and hope. I have become much more creative, often being forced on the spot to adjust interventions to ensure that a child with a certain type of disability is able to participate. I have become a much better listener and communicator. Sometimes I need to take a few extra steps, or rework the things I am trying to say to ensure that I am effectively communicating with the person I am working with, sometimes the work takes longer, but this process always helps in building trust. I’ve also had the privilege of working closely with people from the deaf community and thanks to them I have learned new ways to communicate.
A: Well the first thing I realized, when I too was initially hesitant, is that you don’t have to be a “disability expert” to work with children with disabilities. At first, sometimes the disability itself can be overwhelming and you forget to focus on the child – their needs, their dreams, their ambitions. I suggest not to get caught up in “curing or fixing” the disability and focusing instead on ways in which you can make their immediate environments more accessible and accommodating. Ask yourself how in your professional role you can support their teachers, family members, siblings, and neighbors to ensure that this child feels safe and included. As professionals, we already know how to connect with families and communities, this is what we are good at, so don’t be scared.
Also, it’s really important to always use a strengths-based approach! I find most days I am blown away by what the children I work with are capable of and how, when given the chance, they are able to adapt and succeed in ways many of the people closest to them never thought possible. At the end of the day, even when you are feeling hesitant, you will have to overcome those feelings. We as a workforce have a mandatory obligation to work with all children. Start to explore some of the many resources out there on working with children with disabilities and look for mentors in the field.
While the social service workforce still has hurdles to overcome here in Haiti, it is always inspiring to sit down and chat with Haitian professionals who are working tirelessly to improve the lives of children. This December 3rd, I encourage all members of the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance to reflect on how you and your organization can better support children with disabilities. I also encourage you to take time to learn more about how to promote disability inclusion in your existing programming by exploring resources developed by organizations such as CBM and other leaders in the disability field.
CBM is a Christian international development organization, committed to improving the quality of life of people with disabilities in the poorest communities of the world irrespective of race, gender or religious belief. Based on its core values and over 100 years of professional expertise, CBM addresses poverty both as a cause and as a consequence of disability, and works in partnership with local and national civil society organizations to create an inclusive society for all. For further information, please visit www.cbm.org.