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Whither inclusive education?

HANDY FOR THOSE WITH VISUAL IMPAIRMENTS—Braille material

Disability programmes in Malawi are apparently designed to leave no one behind, but the reality seems to point elsewhere, as ALICK PONJE writes.

There are persons with disability who have defied impediments in their progress to reach their goals. From them has come the realisation that everyone has the potential to make it if given adequate support.

But, despite that Malawi has policies designed to mainstream disability programmes in areas such as education, many people with disability feel left behind.

For instance, there are people with disability who do not have access to education, specifically Special Needs Education (SNE), and one of the points in despite that it is within their universal rights.

The 1993 Equalisation of Opportunity for Persons with Disabilities.

Another statement and framework for action on SNE was drawn by Unesco in Salamanca, Spain, in 1994.

“[SNE] is supposed to be universal because educated people are equally empowered without any discrimination, a thing that connects it to the general human rights of everyone,” a technician in the special needs section at Chancellor College (Chanco), once observed.

He added: “In terms of education, a child with a disability has exceptional needs and consideration to balance the playing field. His or her education may be differentiated from general regular education because some children with disabilities require systematic instruction, special equipment and other things depending on the intensity and or kind of disability.”

But these elements are not readily available to everyone with disability who is willing to pursue their dreams through education.

In fact just recently, some special needs teachers complained that they were not among thousands others who were promoted by the government prior to the May 21 elections.

SNE can sometimes be identified in terms of where it takes place. Depending on the disability, some children cannot be taught in regular classrooms with their peers who do not have them.

But the question is: Is the government doing enough to make sure SNE is part of the universal right to education for every citizen with a disability regardless of the kind of impairment or not?

When we look at the history of SNE in Malawi, we find that the country was one of the first in Africa to train teachers in special needs.

“Montfort College of Teacher Training and [SNE] Centre was founded by Catholic Brothers (Dutch missionaries) in 1950s.

“With the special focus on the most vulnerable pupils, the requirement on [SNE] became apparent. This was the starting point of a teacher training programme within SNE,” a research paper published by the Centre for Education Research and Training of Chanco said.

For many years, Montfort College used to train specialist teachers from Malawi and other African countries such as Botswana, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa and many more. Yet, Malawi itself seems to suffer when the delivery of SNE is concerned.

Anecdotal figures suggest that there are thousands of children with hearing impairments who are unable to access education; some because they cannot travel to a nearest school which can handle their condition; many because they cannot pay the costs of food, lodging and travel and others because there is no space in schools which can handle them.

For others, it is because they cannot optimally access education in mainstream classes.

Tens of thousands of people with hearing impairments do not have adequate sign language interpreters to assist them. Thus, such people continue to face challenges in several areas as they also want to access communal or any other fundamental services.

There was a time when sign language interpreters could not access professional services. As such, most of them would do their training and leave. As late as 2004, there was no certification for qualified interpreters, a thing which impacted on the salary the profession attracted.

This has also contributed to people with disabilities, especially hearing impairments, struggling to live. Because of lack of resources, they are more susceptible to effects of poverty.

Additionally, in many cases, misapprehension and prejudice can be a bigger barrier to people with disabilities than their disability itself.

A national policy paper on Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities was ratified by the Malawi Cabinet in November 2005.

The aim of the policy was to integrate fully persons with disabilities in all aspects of life, thereby equalise their opportunities in order to enhance their dignity and wellbeing, so that they have the essentials of life, among other aims.

The policy also tackles the issue of equal access and inclusion of persons with disabilities in education and training programmes.

But still, there are those who argue that its core objectives have been thrust into the periphery of efforts towards equalising opportunities for persons with disabilities.

In schools, children with physical impairments bank on their friends to have access to classes that have steps. If their colleagues decide not to assist them, then they do not have access to classes, and eventually miss lessons.

There was a time when some young men and women were being denied access to institutions of higher learning because university campuses were disability-unfriendly.

Thus, they were left frustrated as they stayed away from school and most of them ended up being among the poorest of the poor.

“People with disability need to be empowered, and the best way to empower them is through education. Once they are educated they will support themselves and their families.

“They should have equal access to education just like anyone else. Let them do small-scale businesses and their lives will change forever,” says John Nyirenda, who has been trained in SNE.

Imagine what would happen if the majority of people in the world had disabilities. They would have every need at their disposal including SNE. Just as any child needs a pen and a copybook as writing materials, so will one with a hearing impairment need Braille material for writing.

Just like any individual cannot go into a house that does not have doors, so will one with mobility challenges fail to climb stairs.

Some forms of disability will need assistive learning devices and this is the duty of the government to ensure that the devices are readily available.

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