As the sun gently shines through a classroom window, children at the Circle of Hope Academy in Ongwediva, a town in the northern part of Namibia, engaged in a finger-painting exercise. Guided by their teacher, they participate in a routine, slow-paced activity that promotes a mind-body calm.
“The routine exercise allows the children to embrace a journey of discovery far more unique than in a conventional classroom because they are autistic or have special needs,” said Vicky Joel, founder of the Circle of Hope Academy, Thursday.
Established in 2019, the academy provides inclusive education aligned with the national curriculum, from early childhood development to grade three, including special needs classes.
According to Joel, children with special needs are often neglected and face stigma, making it difficult for their parents to find suitable schools. “The aim is to give hope to children for a better future amid limited access to education and break the social stigma that plagues society,” she said.
People living with disabilities, who make up 5 percent of the 2.5 million Namibian population, face significant challenges accessing services and opportunities, including education, according to Alexia Manombe-Ncube, Namibia’s deputy minister of disability affairs.
The school has now grown into a hub for educational inclusion, enrolling 25 learners from across the country and neighboring countries.
“What I love most is seeing a learner overcome challenges such as difficulties with communication or participate in regular activities, it motivates me,” Joel said.
“It took work to establish the school. Initially, some community members rejected the idea of the academy,” she said. The skills she has gained from working at various special needs centers since 2011, and her passion, however, have driven her efforts forward. The academy also conducted extensive public awareness campaigns about autism to combat the stigma surrounding it.
“Over time, people began to appreciate the improvements they saw in the children, and the impact became evident,” she said.
Furthermore, the academy has had a positive ripple effect on society. It has helped promote the mental well-being of the learners and their families, who previously struggled without support.
Community members like Selma Shikongo have witnessed positive changes.
“The academy has made a difference, not only for the kids, but society’s attitude is shifting to a positive outlook,” Shikongo said, adding that the academy has also created jobs, employing seven people amid the high unemployment rate.
Despite the significant progress, challenges such as limited funding for constructing a school building and persistent stigma still exist. Joel, however, remains undeterred and looks towards a brighter future.
In the interim, the academy plans to expand its mainstream division to include all children, regardless of their abilities, and train teachers in inclusive education techniques.
“Our vision is to roll out adaptive techniques to cater to the diverse learning styles of each child. My heart overflows with love for them,” she concluded.