Realistic dreaming

Baby steps to dreaming big

A team working in rural Malawi makes the most of the available resources when coordinating cross-agency support for children with disabilities using PATH. Anita Soni reports.

The project: Tiphunzire

We are a team of researchers from the Universities of Birmingham, Glasgow, Malawi, The Catholic University of Malawi and Kamuzu University of Health Sciences working together on a multidisciplinary project entitled ‘Tiphunzire (Let’s Learn)’. We are trying to identify ways in which education, health and social welfare agencies can work together to support young children with disabilities in the rural district of Chiradzulu, in Malawi.

Bringing agencies together using PATH

The obstacles to effective change can seem daunting, but when we used a modified version of Planning Alternative Tomorrows with Hope (PATH) to help district level officers from Education, Health, Social Welfare and Parents of Disabled Children Association of Malawi (PODCAM) in their planning, we were able to come up with ways to improve the lives of children with disabilities.

Planning with PATH

Start with the realities of ‘now’

The Path tool starts by asking participants to reflect on the current situation – ‘the now’. We used post it notes to fill the ‘Now’ section of the graphic on the wall with the realities of the current situation. Discussion highlighted challenges such as the scarcity of facilities in special schools, spaces in school more generally and concerns about the skills of those working with the children. However, alongside these concerns was the recognition of the important role of parents and that teachers were generally prepared to teach and work with disabled children.

Move on to the dream

The next stage was to develop a dream in terms of an ideal everyone would like to realise for children with disabilities and their families. To ensure key areas were covered we asked that the dream included

  • How children with disabilities were to be identified – what tools would be used, how the data would be stored and how referrals would be made
  • How the transition to primary school would be coordinated
  • How to improve multiagency co-operation

Everyone was keen to share their ideas of their ideal – we all love to dream!

Our emerging dream had a number of over-arching themes, including the need for improved community awareness of disabilities and the right of these children to access the services they need. These would include community-based childcare (CBCC services), school and health services.

Each of the agencies highlighted the importance of sharing accessible tools which could identify children with disabilities. It was agreed that the observations of teachers, community leaders, parents, caregivers and medical staff in hospitals would all be important. Agencies knew they had to  share information and so it was suggested that each child should have an information book which can be added to by all those who work with and support the child, thereby supporting communication between each agency. There was also the option to use the ‘health passport’ which many parents keep.

As children prepared to transition from primary to secondary, the importance of parents, teachers and caregivers meeting together was highlighted alongside encouraging children to visit their new school. Developing inter-agency communication was also part of the dream, with meetings ideally on a monthly basis.

Baby steps in multiagency coordination

The next stage was to consider how this dream could be achieved. Here pragmatism was vital.

The first step would be to use existing checklists, school and hospital admission record books in order to record a disability. The development of a standardised assessment tool and training staff to use it were also identified as goals that could be achieved in the near future. Community sensitisation was an ongoing goal to consider so that everyone in the community became aware of the rights of children with disabilities, which would in turn reduces stigma.

A realistic way to dream

This solution focused approach proved effective, with workshop members finding it helpful to ‘dream’ while at the same time thinking through practical ways of getting as close to the dream as possible. They felt the activity had highlighted gaps between disciplines and indicated ways to develop practices to improve the experiences of children with disabilities and their families. Whilst there was a recognition of the lack of resources, focusing on the real world was the beginning of making the dream itself part of that reality.

And of course the main beneficiaries of the dream would be the children themselves.


Dr. Anita Soni – School of Education, University of Birmingham

Academic and professional tutor

Researchers working on the Tiphunzire! (Let’s Learn) project are Anita Soni, Jenipher Mbukwa Ngwira, Marisol Reyes Soto, Khama Chibwana, Emmie Mbale and Paul Lynch from the Universities of Birmingham, Glasgow, Malawi, The Catholic University of Malawi and Kamuzu University of Health Sciences.


FEATURE IMAGE: by TimDonahue from Pixabay

Support Images: kindly provided by Anita & colleagues