Paralympic hero Kelly Gallagher in African visit as she champions kids' charity project
Northern Ireland Paralympic star Kelly Gallagher has travelled halfway across the world to support a pioneering charity project allowing blind and visually impaired children to access education for the first time.
Shortly after her historic gold medal win at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the skier became the ambassador for blindness charity Sightsavers' Put Us In The Picture Campaign. It aims to ensure people with disabilities are included in global sustainability goals due to be decided this year by world leaders.
Sightsavers flew Kelly to Dakar in Senegal to visit three schools taking part in a groundbreaking project to train teachers to work with children with sight loss and visual impairment.
There is a traditional view in Senegal that blind children are unable to learn, and so they often find themselves consigned to a life begging on the streets. "In developing countries around 61 million children of primary school age are out of school, and a third of these children have disabilities and have little hope of ever getting an education," says the charity.
Bangor-born Kelly was horrified to discover that disability was a barrier to basic education. "For me it just seemed so strange because I come from a place where I was able to enrol in any school I wanted to and access an education, and through that I was able to get involved in anything I ever wanted to," she said. "It's very hard for me to understand how people cope with the idea that they're excluded."
Straight-A student Kelly left Bangor's Glenlola Collegiate with a sparkling collection of four top grade A-levels and graduated from the University of Bath with a degree in mathematics.
During a packed four days in the Senegalese capital Dakar, the local athlete visited three schools, chatting to the children and families and seeing for herself how teachers adapt classes to include all the children. "It's really special; we were able to see how the teachers have adapted their lessons in order to include children with partial sight and also those who are fully blind," she said. "Teachers are learning Braille and they're able to then produce resources in Braille and make their own resources."
Naturally Kelly compared this to her own school experience, and interestingly she believes the UK has lessons to learn from the "life-changing" work she has witnessed. "In my school the responsibility was on me; I was in the classroom but it was up to me to keep up with the rest of the children, rather than for the teacher to be able to communicate with all the children in the class," she explained.
"I honestly feel that for children within our school system, education can't be truly inclusive unless the teachers are supported with resources, are given training and have the capacity to include the child at the same rate as everyone else.
"It's not inclusive if the teacher is delivering a lesson and there are children with dyslexia or visual or hearing impairments, who have the capability to understand what the teacher is teaching but are left behind."
A highlight of the trip was meeting 14-year-old Mbathio, who shares Kelly's love of mathematics. Thanks to the Sightsavers project, the teenager has been in school for three years. Kelly spent time both in school and at home with Mbathio. "The thing you observe is that children are just the same all over the world - they have the same aspirations," she said. "Mbathio is really bright. Her mother said to us that she has always been ambitious and always wanted to go to school so it was really great that she was finally able to."
Kelly's campaign work has provided a welcome focus for her energies, in a year she describes as "frustrating" professionally. Following their record-breaking success at the Winter Olympics in 2014, Kelly's ski guide and close friend Charlotte Evans announced in June that she was stepping down from competitive sport. The decision followed a serious head injury sustained during a training accident earlier in the year, and Evans is now taking a break to focus on youth coaching.
"In a way I kind of grieved for her a little," said Kelly. "I would have loved it if Charlotte wanted to continue but if someone wants to go and do something that makes them happy it's important to support them. It's hard because I haven't had the consistency I've been used to and I'm going to have to find someone else to ski with, because I want to continue, I love the sport."
With Kelly's coach also leaving her team, she faces uncertainty, but is determined to go for gold in the 2018 Games.
She said: "I still love racing, I still think I can be competitive but I need to be patient. I have to show a lot of resilience but that's one of the qualities an athlete needs."