Clearing path for inclusive education
Disability has been cited globally as a factor for social exclusion. In Malawi and Tanzania, having disabilities doubles the probability of children never having attended school, according to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco).
The 2018 Population and Housing Census (PHC) says about 10.4 percent of the population aged five years and older had at least one type of disability, with 90 percent of them living in rural settings.
Of these, 10 percent were male and 11 percent female. Out of the 1, 556, 670 persons with at least one type of difficulty, 49 percent had difficulty seeing, 24 percent had difficulty hearing, 27 percent had difficulty walking/ climbing and nine percent had difficulty in speaking.
Articles 7 and 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Education For All framework aim to meet the learning needs of all children and youth while the and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) recalls those obligations and further specifies that “States Parties shall take all necessary measures to ensure the full enjoyment by children with disabilities of all human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with other children”, and “ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning”.
However, a recent study by the Emmanuel Teachers’ Training College (TTC) established that majority of children in the rural areas of Dedza and Lilongwe are failing to access education because of the problems of visual and hearing impairments.
The study was conducted through a three-year project – Disability Inclusiveness Sanitation Hygiene and Environmental Conservation (Dishe) – which the college is implementing with financial support from a German charity organization – Bread for the World.
The project aims at promoting inclusive learning for pupils with various disabilities including those with hearing and visual impairments.
But Dishe Project Manager Silas Kathyole said children with disabilities face multiple forms of discrimination, which leads to their exclusion from society and school.
Kathyole disclosed that barriers that prevent children with disabilities to access education are located both within and outside the education system, for example transport, social services for assistive devices and health, among others.
“Attitudes toward children with disabilities, as well as a lack of resources to accommodate them, compound the challenges they face in accessing education. We have also observed that certain families, fearing stigmatization, do not send their children to school and, in some instances, prejudices and social attitudes have led to under-declaring the number of children with disabilities,” he narrated.
Kathyole disclosed that it is against this background that Emmanuel TTC and African Bible College (ABC) Hearing Clinic decided to roll out free mass screening services for various disabilities, including hearing loss and blindness, in 18 public schools in Dedza and Lilongwe.
Since 2017 when the project rolled out, the college and the clinic have been conducting periodic screening services to ensure that every child with visual and hearing impairments has been reached and supported appropriately.
Children diagnosed with visual impairments were provided with eye glasses while those with difficulties to hear were given free hearing aids.
Kapedzera Full Primary School is one of the schools benefitting from the project in Mtenthera Zone in Lilongwe. By December 2020, the school had registered 24 learners with eye problems and 10 others had difficulties with their hearing sense.
The school’s head teacher, Sebastian Kunyata, disclosed that the children have been facing challenges to participate in curriculum and extra-curricular activities.
Kunyata added that because of their limited participation in these activities, children with disabilities always have lower rates of school attendance and lower transition rates to higher levels of education.
“At this school, the problem is further compounded by a lack of trained specialist teachers to cater for the needs of children with disabilities. We don’t have teachers with the necessary skills to deliver inclusive education,” he lamented.
The Secretariat of the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities (SADPD) states that poorly adapted school facilities and learning materials, poorly adapted infrastructures and a lack of accessible learning materials are the other significant obstacles to inclusive education.
The directorate says this is particularly true in rural areas where increased levels of poverty, poor services, and recurrent infrastructure failings exacerbate these existing problems for children with disabilities “School curricula that solely rely on passive learning methods, such as drilling, dictation, and copying from the blackboard, further limit access to quality education for children with disabilities,” says SADPD.
Trust Psychosocial Support Organisation (TPSS) Executive Director, Sylvia Namakhwa, concured, stressing that lack of resources is another challenge the inclusive education sector is facing.
Namakhwa observed that funds earmarked for special needs are often insufficient and where funding is available, it is primarily intended for schools and special units, rather than being used for the needs of students enrolled in mainstream schools and removing existing barriers.
“Whether it concerns building adapted schools, reducing class sizes or teacher training, financial and human resources are required. Unfortunately, our government’s resource envelope has not been adequate to cater for all that; hence, the initiative is very commendable,” she said.
The outbreak of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic in April 2020 forced Emmanuel TTC and ABC Hearing Clinic to suspend their services.
The development caused panic among teachers, parents and children from the targeted education zones.
The Primary Education Advisor (PEA) for Nathenje Zone, Wilbert Gomonda, said they were particularly worried because the suspension came at a time the project had started making a huge impact on the children.
“Through this project, we have seen children with visual and hearing impairments improving significantly in terms of school attendance as well as performance in class after receiving eye glasses and hearing aids, respectively. So, we were worried that any disruption to the project would erode the gains we started making in the promotion of inclusive education,” Gomonda said.
Gomonda adds that of particular interest is that the children who used to face stigma before have eventually become so useful and reliable both at school as well as in the communities they are coming from.
“One of the children was recently chose a school prefect because he had improved his participation and performance in class. This has inspired many parents to go with their children to be screened for hearing and visual impairments,” he said.
Kathyole admitted that Covid-19 negatively impacted the implementation of the project. He said they pandemic forced them to channel some of the resources towards the procurement of hand-washing facilities, soap and sanitizers, which were donated to the 18 schools in Dedza and Lilongwe.