When Sarah Boateng, 24, left the UK to volunteer in her family’s home country of Ghana on a project tackling disability stigma, she didn’t expect a chance encounter to change her career path. Motivated and shocked by the discrimination in West Africa, this year ended up at the UN where she presented her ideas for making education more inclusive.
“I was volunteering on a VSO ICS education project in Jirapa, north-west Ghana. I went into my placement set on becoming a teaching assistant for children with special educational needs (SEN) in the UK.
“One day we walked to a local village to visit children to understand why they weren’t in school.
“I’ll never forget what I saw that day during our home visits. I was shocked by the way disabled children were treated and regarded in the community just changed something within me. I understood properly for the first time the true effect of stigma on these children’s lives.
“There’s a widely-held belief in Ghana that having a disabled child makes the parents witches or the child evil. In my mum’s hometown in Ghana, when a child is disabled, they’ll put them by the river and leave. But it’s a lack of knowledge that creates this situation.”
Speaking to an audience at the UN
“When I came back to the UK, I felt lost. I knew I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what. I heard about the upcoming UN Summit in Geneva on the Rights of the Child and decided to try and volunteer there so I could network and make new contacts.
“When people came in, I’d ask about opportunities. One guy came up to me. That man was Alfred Moses, the 90-year-old chairman of UN Watch – the body that monitors the United Nations’ activities. He sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do.
“I said I was really interested in working with vulnerable children in Africa and children that have been abused and are out of school to access quality education. He told me I need to research why there’s an issue – and what’s the solution.
“I was later invited to come to the UN to speak on the rights of indigenous children. I’d been researching what special educational needs (SEN) support is available in the West African country of Niger. It’s basically non-existent. With a population of 21 million, there are just six SEN schools. None are designed for children with mental disabilities.
“It felt amazing. It was the opportunity I’d been looking for. I spoke in front of a room of 800 people about indigenous children and the importance of continuing their education, and how it should be taught in their local language.”
I want to bring together students with and without disabilities
“Education is something no-one should be able to take away from a child. It’s a right. We never stop learning. It’s unfair for a child that’s struggling and needs extra support to not receive it. It’s an abomination for that right to education to be taken away from with special educational needs.
“To people reading looking to find the same opportunities – be patient. You’re going to get told no. A lot. But when I know I want something, I don’t give up. Talk to people and show an interest in their work and what they’ve done. I volunteered in the UK before I interned with the UN – so look for opportunities local to you first.
“I’m so happy I volunteered. ICS was the best thing I ever did for my life in ways I never expected. It gets me emotional because it’s turned my life around. Everyone needs to do it once.”