By Aliko Munde:
Fifty-five years after independence and close to a century after formal education was introduced in Malawi, visually-impaired students cannot study science subjects in secondary school.
Every day, Tawonga Chisale and other visually-impaired learners have to trudge out of their classroom to seek refuge in the resource centre while Physical Science and Mathematics teachers engage sighted learners.
“When it is time for Science subjects, especially Mathematics, Chemistry and Physical Science, I go out because teachers are not disability friendly,” says Chisale, a Form One student at Mzuzu Government Secondary School.
Chapter IV of Malawi’s Republican Constitution provides in Section 25 that every person has a right to education.
To meet this constitutional requirement the government and other stakeholders have put some efforts in the education sector.
Some of the efforts include construction of more secondary schools as well as upgrading of existing ones.
This is surely a move in the right direction as the year 2030 approaches; the time the country will evaluate how it implemented Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number four.
The goal, which is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, is supported by Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) III key priority area number two.
Both instruments emphasise equitable and inclusive education.
However, Chisale and other visually-impaired students feel sidelined by virtue of not being allowed to study science subjects.
“I do not learn science subjects because one day when I complained to one science teacher that when they are teaching they should consider students with disabilities, he slapped me,” Chisale explains.
The 15-year-old says despite yearning to study sciences, her opportunities are limited due to hostility of some teachers as well as lack of equipment and material.
The country has centres for special needs education in some parts of the country.
However, it is not uncommon to hear that a school for the visually-impaired has closed in the course of the term for lack of food supplies or Braille.
These challenges sometimes extend to national examinations where issues such as lack of examination papers in Braille or large print or no invigilators for candidates with visual impairment crop up.
The current secondary school curriculum is designed to align more to Sciences more than Humanities. This is because the goal of the Malawi education sector is to produce a generation that would come up with scientific solutions to the challenges that affect the country’s socio-economic development.
To meet this goal, the government is investing in the education sector heavily as evidenced by the establishment of Nalikule College of Education to train more science teachers.
Additionally, with support from stakeholders and donor agencies such as Japanese International Corporation Agency, the government is constructing laboratories in secondary schools across the country.
But to Chisale and others, such efforts are meaningless if they do not include needs of visually-impaired students.
Another student at the same school Isaac Daza suggests that the government should put in place a deliberate policy to ensure that visually- impaired students learn Arithmetic and Algebra at secondary school level.
“In Mathematics, government should allow us to be learning Arithmetic and Algebra except Geometry which requires drawing of shapes and figures,” says Isaac, 19, and in Form Three.
However, others countries are able to provide secondary school Mathematics lessons to students with visual impairment.
To this effect, Mzuzu Government Secondary School special needs teacher Logen Kumwenda shares his students’ sentiments.
“In primary school, students learn science subjects but when they come to secondary school, they drop them because of lack of special equipment and materials such as text books.
“So, visually-impaired students should be learning Algebra and Arithmetic but exempted from Geometry,” he says.
“Similarly, in Chemistry and Physical Science, they should be exempted from practical lessons as is the case in other countries,” Kumwenda adds.
The current situation has led to limited career options for students with visual impairment. No wonder most graduates are confined to Humanities regardless of their potential in and zeal for Sciences.
For instance, Wilton Nyirenda, a fourth year visually impaired student at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi, was forced to study Social Science majoring in History.
College authorities advised him to do Humanities instead of his desired Public Administration because the latter has science subjects such as Mathematics.
“I felt bad because I never aspired to do Humanities. I wanted to do Public Administration,” Nyirenda says.
“The problem is that, as students with visual impairment, we rely on short notes because there are no Braille textbooks in the college library,” he adds.
Ministry of Education Science and Technology public relations officer, Lindiwe Chide, acknowledges challenges students with visual impairment face in secondary school.
“It’s true that some visually-impaired students are not allowed to learn science subjects in some schools. This has come about due to shortages in specialist teachers in these schools,” Chide explains.
She, however, says the Ministry of Education’s policy encourages that visually impaired learners should study science subjects as well.
“We are addressing the issue by training and deploying more teachers to all schools so that the learners can receive the attention they deserve.
“Some of these practical subjects may require one-on-one attention and this could be a contributing factor for not being able to have learners with visual impairment in science subjects due to their nature,” Chide says.
But Montfort Special Needs Education College’s Head of Visual Impairment and Deaf Department, Paul Sitima, says the institution has a module on the teaching of Mathematics and Physical Science.
He, however, says if teachers are posted to secondary schools, they do not practice what they learned.
Sitima wonders why the country brags about inclusive education when some category of students is marginalised in some courses.
“My view is that we are miles away from Inclusive Education. What is called Inclusive Education in Malawi is what was called Integration in developed countries.
“Many people in Malawi think that Inclusive Education is about just putting learners with diverse needs in mainstream classes without changes in curriculum as Malawian schools are examination-oriented,” Sitima says.
He adds that other people think that just by erecting ramps and having accessible toilets then that constitutes Inclusive Education.
“That is just one-tenth of Inclusive Education. There is more to be done. Know that Inclusive Education in developed countries is quite different from what developing countries call Inclusive Education,” Sitima says.
He then suggests that inclusive education schools should be staffed with qualified personnel in different fields of special needs education to provide support to mainstream teachers.
“If there is only one specialist teacher specialised in one category of special needs, he or she may not be able to provide support in areas he or she did not specialise,” Sitima says.
Sitima, who is also Braille Mathematics, Science and Chemistry expert, asks the government to procure special Mathematics and Physical Science equipment for the visually impaired learners.
He adds that the government should also procure enough Perkins Braille machines and assistive computers with Duxbury Braille Translator (DBT) software.
“It should be a project for four years with close monitoring. Its evaluation should be done after the first group has written Malawi School Certificate of Education,” Sitima says.
“If other countries are able to provide for their visually- impaired students, what is the problem with this country?” wonders Sitima.