Interview with Sister Teddy
When Irene Opira, JLOF’s Executive Director, was in Kitgum, Uganda, she had the opportunity to interview Sister Teresa “Teddy” Ayoo, who is both the founder and CEO of Glory Special Needs School, with which JLOF collaborates. During the interview, Sister Teddy talks about why she decided to start a school that targets children with disabilities that make it possible for them to study in an environment that is suitable for their needs. She also talks about the importance of the school for both children, parents and for herself and her personal development.
The interview was extremely inspiring for us at JLOF and a good reminder of why the foundation’s work is important. We hope you are as inspired by Sister Teddy as we are!
Teresa “Teddy” Ayoo background
I joined to be a nun in 1987, that was in the congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in West Nile, Moyo. I served as a nun and professionally I am also a teacher. After I have been professed, I have been transferred to many different districts and that is where I came into contact with a child with disability. That was in West Nile and I picked this child and took to the community of the nuns, of which you have to get of all acceptant permission from the superior, and you have to take care of that. So, I took care of the child and many other communities saw that and they started bringing these children. The law does not allow that you keep as a group individually but should be communally, and indeed I got the permission where we started a group of children with disabilities in West Nile.
Later I was transferred to Karamoja. In Karamoja I got into the same situation, and worse so far with the Karamojong since they immediately kill children with disabilities. Their culture does not allow them to keep the disabled child, because it is like an outcast. So, I started that group of children with disabilities in Karamoja and I was supported by an American man. I started in that community and later I was transferred and another nun took over to take care of that community instead.
I was taken to Arua in Adumi, whereby I had this community, the same thing. But the one of Arua communities was for elderly people, those who are completely rejected, marginalized, and discriminated in the community and we started arranging activities where they can do something and support themselves. After that, I think after three years, I was transferred to Moyo, this is where I had to start a school, in Madupi primary school. In West Nile, that is in Moyo, we did not have deaf children, they had a physical handicap, so we started a school for that. And, so my experience is wherever I go I am always touched with people with disabilities, who are marginalized, who are completely discriminated, isolated.
“My experience is wherever I go I am always touched with people with disabilities, who are marginalized, who are completely discriminated, isolated”.
The call to return home
So, when I went to Nebbi district, I got the same problem for children with disabilities and I started a school for them, and later I had a call that I should move further to Northern Uganda where there was a war. I came to Gulu and got a lot of children. That is where my dream came which said to me that “there is something that you are not doing because you are transferred from time to time. Have a permanent place so that you can serve these children”. In Gulu, that is when I went and asked the Bishop: “I want to go home to serve my people in Kitgum district”. Because I was already told that there were so many children in Kitgum district during the war that nobody takes care of them. And the Bishop told me that: “I think you have to give yourself time so that you can pray and try to see if really you are called”. Then when the month I was given elapsed, I felt that I still need to go home. In 2004, I was released from the congregation to come home as a nun but one who is going to remain single.
So, the Bishop released me and I came back in 2004 to my own district in Kitgum and I started moving in the camps. There were so many children being thrown out, being left without food. I had a place where I was staying, and I started receiving the children. They were overwhelming the place. I went to Louise Ford, she is from Australia. We discussed with her and she said: “yes get a place. I am ready to support you to hire”. So, we got a place we rented and started this program. The program we started was mostly vocational skills training to empower them so that when they go back to the community, they are able to do something for themselves. But it happened that the community started bringing in even the young ones. So in this I was pushed to move further to the NGOs and I went to the Norwegian Refugee Council. So I went back to Louise Ford who was my friend, we bought this place and in 2007, immediately the construction of this place started. And we had so many organizations that supported children with disabilities here. Many people brought their children here to the center.
Working with children with disabilities in Uganda
It is not very, very, easy to work with children with disabilities in Uganda. Because it is so demanding, people feel that it is a waste of time, resources, because tomorrow, parents don’t gain anything from them. And also, the negative attitude that the community has towards people with disabilities. It is too high in most of our culture, e.g. in Acholi culture people feel that disability is associated with evil spirits, the woman is not supposed to give birth to a child with disability. So children with disability are not taken care of equally as other children. Always in the community you find that they are marignalised, traumatized, they are isolated, they are left, nobody bothers to bring them together. And so, it is the same today, their education – nobody takes care of the education for children with disabilities. Why? Because members of the community feel that it’s a waste of resources. We better take the “normal” child to school than the child with a disability. Yet these children are bright, they are very bright.
“The community really doesn’t see that a child with disabilities when empowered, when educated, when directed, can be somebody tomorrow”
The school’s biggest accomplishment
So far, the amount of children that have gone through here is 1827, that is counting from 2007 when we started this school. Four of them have gone to study at universities, and one is graduating this year. Not only that, but we have also had some students that we have empowered, like Lakot from Agago Pader. We have two who are on the sewing machine, at least they are benefitting. Other children, we can train them, but no parents can afford to even buy them a sewing machine to continue with their work. That is the unfortunate part of it but so far, we have empowered them so they know their rights. We have empowered them so they know what they are supposed to do and to be assertive. We have also empowered them in leadership.
The greatest success of Glory Special Needs School
The greatest success to the school is that our children are able to learn. They are able to move to other places, like to Kampala. Our success is also that we have, so far, talked on the rights of people with disabilities and empowered our children with disabilities. They know their rights now. Our success also is that we have taught these children to read and write. Not only that, but we have also made sure that the parents too are empowered, at least to have that heart, a positive heart towards a child with disability. Not only that, but our success is also to have a good school in Northern Uganda, for the first time.
We train the teachers in sign language, although after the training they join other schools, they go away to government schools with higher salaries. However, sign language is got only in Glory school.
What working with children with disabilities has taught Sister Teddy
What I have learnt from working with children with disabilities:
- It has actually increased my faith, because I did not expect that a child like this, who knows nothing, can learn or can read, more so deaf children. So, it has made my faith to be strong.
- What I have learnt from them is that, when you get close to them, they are so social. They love to be social and they like those who are associating with them.
- What I have learnt is that they are hard working and they are cooperative, they like unity. And more so when a fellow disable comes, especially the deaf when they see another deaf person, you see how they can unite. Because they feel that surely they are created in another way.
- And what I have also learnt is that these children they really need us, they need us to direct them, they need us to lead them. They need us to advise them.
“Children with disability are not taken care of equally as other children. Always in the community you find that they are marignalised, traumatized, they are isolated they are left, nobody bothers to bring them together.”
The need for improved governmental support to children with disabilities
I remember in 2019, I went up to Entebbe. I wanted to meet the president myself regarding the program for disabilities. So, if I am to tell the leaders, I would tell the leaders that children with disabilities are equal, we have to take them equally like any other child. Because they are able to perform, they are also able to read and write, they are able to do all good things like other children.
I would also tell the leaders, children with disabilities should not be left out or behind. There is a need for these children to know their rights, to be assertive, to say no. At the same time, I would tell the leaders let us empower these children through education so that they may continue with their education. Not only that, but I would also tell leaders to put their hands and support children with disabilities. Since the parents often do not value children with disabilities, as a government, as people who are educated and those who have hearts, should really make sure that we all stand for educating children with disabilities. Not to live always in begging, but we should also learn how to empower these children so that tomorrow they are able to stand on their own. Whereby they can do income generating activities, take their children to school and do things that can support their families.
And also, I would tell leaders that to make their community change we should raise our voices so that we create awareness to advocate for the rights of children to build a positive attitude towards the community on the rights of children with disabilities.
Also, what I would tell the government, in Northern Uganda today, there is a need for more and better schools for children with disabilities. And currently to access the schools for children with disabilities, you have to move all the way to Kampala, something that our parents in Northern Uganda cannot afford. So, they should have a secondary school in Northern Uganda. There is also discrimination from the central to Northern region. Because, if you think about schools for children with disabilities, I went to Tinda and there is another school for children with disabilities there. You find that the pupils there are all supported by donors. But when you write a project proposal and invite a donor to come to the Northern region, nobody comes. That means that the people there in central want the children there to learn more than we in Northern Uganda, because we do not have support. And even when a child performs well enough to go to secondary school, it is a problem. So, there is a need that in Northern Uganda we should have a secondary school, we have plenty of land and plenty of space to build one.
The right to a proper education for all children is a matter of the heart for JLOF. We would like to give a big thank you to Sister Teresa “Teddy” Ayoo for her passionate work for children with disabilities. We are honored that she took the time to tell us about her experiences!