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High Praise For Disability-Inclusive Early Childhood Campaign in Maldives

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Disability World, Issue No. 26, December 2004-February 2005.

The Maldives is a tiny country in terms of population. Approximately 300,000 people live in 199 of 1200 islands over 90,000 square kilometres. In the recent tsunami disaster, one third of the country's people were directly affected. Homes, schools, livelihood, access to clean drinking water, basic health services have been destroyed or damaged in some way. The tourism sector has been crushed and will take years and years to repair. And because the maximum level of any island is eight feet above sea level, the entire country remains vulnerable.

"First Steps" Early Childhood Public Education Campaign All of this is only one reason why the "First Steps" Early Childhood campaign stands out as so remarkable. A few years back, in 2001-2002, the campaign made an impact on the lives of disabled children--and all children. For 52 weeks, everyday, three times a day on radio and television, a message about infants and young children ran through the hearts and minds of every Maldivian. Each week there was a different message with local Maldivian children and families as "actors". Topics ranged from breastfeeding to learning through play to keeping dangerous medicines out of reach of young children. Nothing like this had ever happened in the Maldives, or many other countries, before ... or since.

Ms. Rina Gill, then the Assistant Representative of the UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) Office in the Maldives, has always been a pioneer in "thinking outside the box" in terms of both management and communications. She led the team (to which I was a consultant) to develop a communication strategy and campaign that included various ministries and media.

Skepticism at Outset An evaluation was conducted of the campaign in 2004 and the team was honest in saying that, at the onset, they were "skeptical". They stated that "social marketing, like commercial marketing, is known to work best when selling one main idea ... persistently over a period of time. First Steps' premise seemed flawed by dealing with too many messages ... stretched over nearly a year."

Yet, in the end, the evaluators called it "A Giant Leap for Humankind" because it did upset these same marketing theories. The analysis did confirm that, even two years after the "campaign", changes in attitude and behaviour could be directly linked to this campaign. The evaluators said that the communications campaign not only "touched people's lives in the Maldives as nothing had done before" but it brought about a "paradigm shift with regard to increased sensitivity and awareness of children's development and childcare practices".

Significant Finding: Frequency of Disability Topics One of the most significant findings of the evaluation is the number of times the TV and radio spots on the topic of disability were mentioned. They state that "high recall spots include children with Down Syndrome being treated "normally" and that many people discussed "opportunities for children with disabilities." Even more surprising were the apparent fundamentally behavioural changes in what the evaluators called the "difficult areas like interacting and caring for children with special needs".

Disability-Related Findings

The evaluators specifically emphasized:

"In a significant achievement, the campaign created awareness for children with special needs. The focus on children with Down Syndrome helped many (disabled) children and their families. Social acceptance of mentally and physically challenged children improved and even child-to-child interactions became increasingly positive following the campaign. Parents with mentally challenged children felt they needed more specialized help in dealing with their children. Special children must be included in play like other children, and schools should be sensitized in dealing with them."

It is important to point out that the disability focus was only one small part of the campaign. Several spots focused on disability--early detection, inclusion, the fact that a child who is disabled can be a joy to a family, etc. But the majority did not. The spots that did, however, were positive and powerful.

Campaign Offsets Previous Invisibility of Disabled Children

And, previously, disabled children and adults were nearly invisible in the Maldives.

Here is a sample of the "disability-flavour" of the campaign:

Aiman was a bubbling four-year-old with Down Syndrome. He and his mother, Haamida, who was pregnant at the time, participated in a TV spot, along with several of Aiman's cousins. Both of Aiman's parents agreed that it was useful to highlight how much they loved their son to other families.

We see Haamida and Aiman play hide-and-seek around large trees. Then Aiman and his cousins run around in the sand and play with a ball. Haamida, through a voice-over, talks about her son with so much love in her voice and tells how his cousins are always asking for her to bring him to their home. She says that Aiman brings joy to their family just like any other child. He is, indeed, the star of this TV spot.

A new mother is shown simple ways to test if her baby can see and hear. She is also told that, even if her child has any problem, she should treat her child as she would any other child.

A young girl with cerebral palsy is telling a story to her mother and father on a radio spot. The girl is delightful and keeps on giggling--much to the delight of her parents.

A group of older children use a huge parachute to play a game with younger brothers and sisters. Some of the children are disabled. Some are not.

A book is written about how older brothers and sisters can help their younger brothers and sisters learn through play. Two of the featured older siblings are disabled. One is an adolescent brother who has Down Syndrome. Another is a teenage sister who is blind.

First Indigenous Children's Books Inclusive of Disability Prior to producing the campaign spots, a series of books for children were produced. Never before was there an indigenous book about a disabled child.

It was quite difficult to find a family who would agree to have their child photographed for this project. One family, Yaish's family (seen in these photos) agreed.

They said that, prior to this book, people in the street would either ignore them or say very cruel things to Yaish and his parents. But after the book was published, and even more so after the TV and radio spots were broadcast--Yaish was a celebrity.

As in every country, it took courage for Yaish's family to say yes. It took courage for the Early Childhood team members to find the little girl whose speech was poor and use her on a radio spot. It took courage for every "first" family who agreed to open their lives to everyone in their country. It took courage for Ms. Gill and the UNICEF team to pioneer a campaign that was "outside the traditional box" in terms of development and social communications.

But it made a difference. A big difference.