Due to inadequate space and materials in schools that offer special needs education, many learners with special needs such as Juvita Phiri and Gertrude Kayange at Ekwendeni School of the Visually Impaired are either left uneducated or find an alternative place in a mainstream ‘inclusive’ setting where they face many challenges. As such, learners with special needs usually lag behind their peers and find it hard to get a place in secondary school and institutions of higher learning as SAMUEL KALIMIRA explores in today’s series of Friday Shaker.
Juvita Phiri, seven, comes from Kapita in Mzimba South and is at Ekwendeni School of the Visually Impaired. She is at pre-school stage and her ambition is to be a teacher.
Her best friend Gertrude Kayange, nine, is from Chitipa District and dreams of becoming a police officer.
The two learners said they enrolled at the school, which is under Livingstonia Synod of Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), to meet their education goals.
This was after their parents were told that children with visual-impairment can also be educated, employed and live like any other person.
“I feel inspired by female teachers. I think I would be a teacher one day,” Phiri saidAdvertisement
This is so because, despite enrolling at the school, they are facing difficulties to access quality education.
The school’s head teacher, Jean Kayira, said the institution lacks learning and teaching materials for learners with special needs.
“We only have two Perkins braillers with one brailler embosser against 55 learners. Others broke down and we are failing to repair them because we do not have money [for the cost of repairs]. We have only three Strus and we struggle to buy embosser and brail papers.
“We receive K450,000 per month from the government and the funding is not enough to pay five support staff, repair braillers, pay water, electricity bills and many others,” Kayira said.
The school’s in-charge, Frances Mkandawire, echoed Phiri’s complaints, adding the resource centre faces the problem of shortage of teachers, as the entire school has three qualified educators.
“I don’t think we are doing better in providing quality education because, apart from the challenges that haunt the academic sector, we face problems in feeding them [learners], beds and mattresses are inadequate because many are broken and torn. Learners sleep without mosquito nets and we always send many to hospital for malaria diagnosis.
“Imagine learners scramble for mobility canes, [white cane], learning and writing materials, food and place to sleep, do you think they can get required education and later be self-reliant?” Mkandawire asked.
Chilanga School for the Blind of CCAP Nkhoma Synod in Kasungu District faces similar challenges.
The school is in dilapidate state. Classrooms and teachers’ houses have dangerous cracks. Learners sit on the floor with many cracks.
It would not be a surprise to hear of disasters, like the one that befell Natchengwa Primary School in Zomba District where four learners died after a perimeter wall fell on them.
At Chilanga, the majority of learners sleep without mosquito nets and a few have torn nets.
The actual learners’ section is in a sorry state.
Chilanga Head teacher, Symon Kamzowole, said the school’s 81 learners scramble for the only available Perkins brailler.
The school’s only four teachers use the same brailler when preparing lesson plans.
“Despite the fact that this school sends learners to boarding and community day secondary schools (CDSS), teaching is always a hustle. When the only Perkins brailler is being used by a teacher, it means learners have to wait.
“We have over 10 broken braillers and we are failing to repair them because of limited resources. This means it is rare for a learner to practise after classes. Now, how would you expect [us to promote] quality education with the current shortage of learning and teaching materials?” Kamzowole asked.
He said the shortage of qualified teachers at the school is denying learners access to quality education which is a fundamental human right.
The head teacher said the school, which was then supported by missionaries, gets K1.3 million mostly from government but not in time.
“These learners are supposed to access quality education, just like any other child. When they come here, we provide all basic needs. They eat and sleep here. The K1.3 million which we receive per month always comes late. Sometimes, we get maize from our homes so that these learners should not sleep on an empty stomach,” Kamzowole said.
Authorities for both schools complained that, sometimes the government underfunds them.
They also complained that teachers are always overwhelmed because, apart from teaching, they transcribe what teachers from inclusive classes teach.
Ekwendeni, Chilanga, Embagweni in Mzimba, Nyungwe in Karonga and St. Magdalena in Rumphi District are just a few examples of many schools that face similar challenges.
But despite such challenges, the Malawi Constitution under Chapter IV (I) 25 stipulates that all persons are entitled to education.
The government signed the Convention on the Rights of People with Disability, Convention of the Right of Child, and Unesco Convention against Discrimination in Education to protect any other child.
Malawi Union for the Blind Executive Director, Ezekiel Kumwenda, said it was sad that the country is good at policy-making and signing treaties but fails to implement them.
“To be visually impaired does not mean the person is condemned. Right to education is for all but it is sad that the government is doing little to support education for people with visual impairment. There are inadequate school materials and teachers, yet we signed such treaties and the country has good policies,” Kumwenda said.
Livingstonia Synod Educat ion Secretary, Reverend Vincent Kalua, agreed with Kumwenda, saying the government is not serious with education for learners with special needs, especially those with visual impairment.
Kalua said special needs schools lack books in brailler for use by teachers.
“With inclusive education which the government introduced, it is becoming a challenge for a teacher to transcribe writings of many students to be marked by any other teacher. As a result, many just learn practical and very few go further with education.
“The ministry changes the syllabus with new books but you will not find the books in Braille. This means that a teacher is supposed to read the text and put it into Brailles and give it a learner to read. This is difficult and tiresome. To make matters worse, the government doesn’t train many special needs teachers to meet the demand,” Kalua said.
But Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Justin Saidi, downplayed claims that the government provide to a limited number of special needs teachers.
Saidi said the ministry has increased the number of teachers recruited specifically for special needs, adding that Machinga Teachers Training College has special space to accommodate special needs teachers.
“We have developed Inclusive Education Policy which has been approved and launched and the aim is not to leave anybody behind when it comes to education. We have also increased [funds for] the procurement of materials of learners with difficulties. We have also increased the number for learners in secondary schools and even at higher education institutions,” Saidi said.
Said could not respond to the issue to do with underfunding challenges which the schools face.
But the government and Unicef report, ‘From Exclusion to Inclusion, Promoting the Rights of Children with Disability in Malawi’, shows that the majority of parents cannot afford to pay school fees and learning materials for special needs learners; a development which leads to many failing to access quality education.
The report also cites challenges such as poor structures in many schools and unfriendly infrastructure for learners with disabilities as among the setbacks.
However, the report recommends the position for free education for children with disabilities, training special needs teachers, providing special education and establishing resource centres in conventional schools.
Education is a key to success. However, it is supposed to be for all.
Common wealth Education Hub report which the Department of Special Needs in the Ministry Education presented in 2011 indicates that the country trained 270 teachers, 185 community leaders and 136 mother groups meant to support learners with special needs in the country.
International Association of Special Education rates Malawi as one of the countries in Africa that are not doing much to support learners with disabilities. The other countries are Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique.
A vibrant writer who gives a great insight on hot topics and issues