By Kieran Guilbert
Dakar — Working quietly in a classroom at a primary school in Dakar, nine-year-old blind boy Abdoulaye sits next to the star pupils, who watch and help him, and alert the teacher if he struggles.
Even when the lesson ends and children spill into the dusty yard, gossiping and guzzling down water, a few stay behind with Abdoulaye as he slides the final Braille blocks into place.
"At first there were worries and fears, it was an innovation to have all the children together in one class," said teacher Mbaye Sow. "But when you see disabled children coming out of their shell, working and playing with others - it is joyful."
Among those singing, dancing and chasing one another around the yard of L'Ecole Malick Diop in Senegal's capital, blind and visually impaired children walk hand-in-hand with their peers in a country where disabilities are widely considered a curse.
Malick Diop is one of a growing number of inclusive education schools, where children with and without disabilities learn together in the same class, in Senegal and West Africa, a region where as few as one in 20 disabled children go to school.
Children with disabilities in West Africa are often hidden at home or sent to beg in the streets by parents who deem them cursed, worthless and incapable of succeeding at school.
This exclusion leaves disabled children at even greater risk of abuse and violence - some are raped, killed by their parents or even ritually sacrificed by secret societies, activists say.
There are only around 50 inclusive education schools in Senegal, but activists hope the adoption in September of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations will galvanise nations across West Africa to scale up their efforts.
The set of 15-year objectives, which address a range of ills from poverty to climate change, include equal education for disabled people and disability-sensitive school facilities.
"Nations have not been held to account under U.N conventions (on disability rights) but hopefully the SDGs will change that if they do not make progress on inclusive education", said Sandra Boisseau, inclusive education co-ordinator at Handicap.
FROM CURSE TO CATFISH
Disabled children in West Africa are more likely to be out of school than any other group of children - including girls, children from ethnic minorities and those living in conflict zones, rural areas or slums, child rights experts say.
A third of the around 60 million children worldwide who do not go to primary school are disabled, latest U.N. figures show.
Yet there is a lack of data for West Africa, which limits awareness of disability rights and hinders efforts to get more disabled children into school, according to Plan International.
Many West Africans believe a child is born disabled due to a bad act committed by a relative, the presence of a curse or evil spirit, or even because the mother ate catfish while pregnant.
Parents are often isolated or banished by their communities, mothers are deserted by their husbands, and many children are abandoned at religious institutions for care, campaigners say.
Yet a drive by the Senegalese government and child rights groups to dispel the stigma by working with local radio stations and religious leaders, coupled with advocacy from parents associations and travelling teachers, has shifted perceptions.
"Now we have a different kind of problem - there is too much demand (for inclusive education)," said Astou Sarr, West Africa co-ordinator of Sightsavers inclusive education programme.
NO ONE LEFT BEHIND
From glasses for the visually impaired to Braille slates for the blind, teachers in Senegal are being trained to identify children with disabilities and tailor their classes accordingly.
Certain teachers travel to disabled pupils' homes to reinforce what they have learnt at school, provide support to their families and even teach some parents to use Braille.
"But now the teachers have the right tools and tell the parents: 'We will take care of them, we know how to do so'."
The focus of inclusive education in West Africa is currently on physically disabled pupils, but the aim is to provide greater teacher training to include all disabled children.
Children with intellectual disabilities in Senegal go to specialist schools, but some could transition to inclusive education schools from the start of next year, said Saliou Senn, inclusive education co-coordinator at the Ministry of Education.
"Across West Africa, in general, education is starting to become universal education... these children here are the future of our nation, and no-one should be left behind," Senn said.
At Malick Diop school, Aissatou Diop, a mother of five visually impaired children, smiles as she watches a noisy gaggle of latecomers jostle through the gates and past a bold Braille-covered mural proclaiming: "It's the mind that learns, not the eyes!".
"The best gift you can have as a parent is to see your children in school. It gives them freedom, confidence and courage - it even changes the way they walk, play and talk."