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British Couple Bring Hope to South Africa's Severely Disabled Children - 2002-08-19

Disabled children in some of Africa's most impoverished neighborhoods are sometimes deprived of adequate food and medical care, because they cannot help contribute to the family's income. One British couple is trying to help these children. The husband and wife team, together with local governments, has created 13 day-care centers for severely disabled children throughout South Africa.

In a simple, low-slung, white building on the outskirts of Durban, Mike Downey encourages a group of African grandmothers to get down on the floor and crawl like babies.

When this small, energetic Englishman drops to his hands and knees, the women giggle and cover their faces. As everyone begins to sing, a few of the women hike up their long skirts and join Mr. Downey.

Every six months, Mr. Downey and his wife, Helen, come to South Africa from their home in Wales to conduct three weeks of workshops for dozens of untrained caregivers. For several years, their project was financed by money from Britain's national lottery and from individual and corporate contributions. The lottery money is gone now, so the Downeys are seeking money from elsewhere, and local governments in South Africa are providing some help.

The workshops run by the Downeys help train the caregivers how to assess and treat disabled children. In more developed nations, this type of work is typically done by university-trained physical and occupational therapists.

But Mr. Downey says South Africa's disabled children are not getting the medical attention they need. To help remedy this, he and his wife turned to the relatively untapped labor pool of unemployed, disadvantaged women to work in, and run, their centers.

"If you can utilize those people to help the disabled, not only will you improve the potential of the disabled children, but you will also improve the self-esteem of the unemployed people, and also the skills of the unemployed people," he said. The caregivers are getting results. Through closely monitored, repetitive techniques, they have taught some severely disabled South African children to walk, talk, and feed themselves.

Most of the caregivers are illiterate. To simplify things, the Downeys encourage them to use traditional African songs, rather than clocks, to dictate how long they perform an exercise.

Back in Durban, five-year-old Imbahli lies on a table. Mrs. Downey watches as four women, slowly and repetitively move the young girl's emaciated and rigid limbs. They are teaching her how to crawl.

"Just remember when you are going to bring her leg up, you try and get it off the table," she said. "When you pull it down, you pull it on the table because that is going to show her how to move." The caregivers say Mr. and Mrs. Downey's techniques are not difficult to understand or to carry out. The head of one of the day-care centers, Vasie Kistensany, says a much greater challenge is the stigma attached to disabled children in South Africa. "I believe that we've got to have that love for these children, because if you cannot have that love and that compassion for these children, then you cannot work with them," she said.

Mr. and Mrs. Downey say thousands of severely disabled South African children lie unattended in their homes. The couple's hope is that, one day, every disabled child in southern Africa will have access to a day-care rehabilitation center.