"The power of youth is the commonwealth of the entire world" Kailash Satyarthi
With every stroke of his brush, Michel creates a masterpiece. The 17-year-old is an agile and youthful artist who says his hearing impairment brought him to painting. He used his disability to focus even more on his artwork and convey his innermost feelings. Michel lives in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon in West Africa.
On this International Youth Day, CBM Christian Blind Mission draws inspiration from Michel's story to encourage parents, teachers, leaders and all others to empower youth, including young persons with disabilities, to discover their potential.
Youth with disabilities are among the most marginalised and poorest young people in the world. They are more likely to face severe social, economic and civic inequalities compared to youth without disabilities, even in developed countries. According to UNICEF, the number of children with disabilities between the ages of 0 and 18 is 240 million. For many young persons with disabilities, exclusion, stigma, discrimination, abuse, and lack of educational and economic opportunities are everyday experiences resulting from attitudinal institutional and environmental barriers.
Sian Tesni, CBM's Global Advisor for Inclusive Education, says: "Education is an important foundation for life. It provides an individual with knowledge and better employment potential, helping to reduce poverty. It contributes to the overall development, sustainability and stability of a nation. Yet, compared to children without disabilities, children with disabilities are 47% less likely to attend school globally, and 55% do not attend secondary school. Stories like Michel's show the transformative power of inclusive education and how young persons with disabilities can play a critical role in building a disability-inclusive future."
A wrong diagnosis that disabled Michel
Michel's mother Alice tells us that Michel contracted meningitis when he was 11 months old. He was initially misdiagnosed with malaria and treated. Unfortunately, Michel's health deteriorated, and he fell into a coma for four days.
"When he woke up, Michel was paralysed. With the help of rehabilitation measures, he regained his mobility. Unfortunately, Michel lost his hearing. I noticed this when he was two years old. I remember calling him and getting no answer. At first, it was like a dream. I kept trying - calling his name loudly, banging on cans and making loud noises to get his attention. Nothing worked," Alice recalls.
She pauses and takes a deep breath: "My late husband and I took him to the hospital, where our worst fears were confirmed - Michel had lost his hearing. We did everything in our power to find a solution, visited several hospitals, but nothing could be done."
When Michel turned 4, he was enrolled in an inclusive school where deaf children are supported. His siblings and mother all learned sign language so they could communicate with him at home. When he finished primary school, his parents could not find an inclusive school that met his needs. They decided to capitalise on his talent, art.
"We wanted to enrol him in an art centre to develop this skill and make him a professional, but even that was hard to find. We were frustrated and felt helpless," says Alice.
In Cameroon and many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in other developing countries, it is difficult to find inclusive schools or vocational training centres for children with hearing or speech impairments. Many children with such impairments do not go to school, let alone realise their dreams.
A new beginning at PROMHANDICAM
Alice heard about CBM partner PROMHANDICAM (Inclusive School and Physical Rehabilitation Centre), which works to improve the living conditions of persons with disabilities.
PROMHANDICAM enrolled Michel in an arts centre in Yaoundé. The centre's director, Charles, says he realised that Michel needed not only skills but also psychosocial rehabilitation. He was often angry and defensive. It took a while for Michel to settle in. But with each passing day, Michel worked on his brush strokes, made friends and even began to smile.He is currently in his second year of training.
"This training centre is like a home to me. I am very happy to be here," Michel says.
Michel takes time to encourage children with disabilities to work hard in school. He is also working on an art collection that he will exhibit when he finishes his education. One of the drawings shows a man's face - one side dark and opaque, the other side brightly lit.
"It represents the transition from the despair that comes with developing a disability to the hope and determination that comes from not letting the disability limit you," Michel explains.
With a transformation like Michel's, the power of inclusion is evident.
The Transition Art Piece
Michel's famous art piece represents the transition from despair to hope.