Tuesday February 20 2018

Universities must do more for special needs students


By Desire Mbabaali

When Bonny Okoda enrolled for a Bachelor’s in Business Administration degree at Uganda Christian University – Mbale he was not surprised when he was initially rejected because the institution could not train people with a hearing impairment.

Okoda, who graduated in November last year, says he was admitted after telling the administrators he had a personal interpreter.
“I have always had a sign language interpreter even in high school, I told them I would have someone to interpret for me. They asked me who would be meeting the cost and I told them I would. Only then was I admitted,” he narrates.

This meant he had to pay his tuition and his interpreter’s salary every month, making his education very expensive.
“I always had problems with some of my lecturers who thought being deaf meant I could not perform or even reason. Some did not care at all while others just treated me with pity. They always looked at my interpreter as someone who did everything for me, which was not true because they were not well versed with special needs issues,” he asserts.

This, Okoda says, extended to some of his fellow students. “Majority did not want to associate with me thinking I would pass my impairment to them,” Okoda mentions. In addition, they had no student association to bring together physically challenged students to ease advocacy of their pressing issues.

When asked about getting a job, Okoda says he is not employed yet because many employers think hiring a person with special needs is expensive. “But that is not true. We can work independently. I wrote my proposal to UCU, Mbale, requesting them to allow me teach sign language to students and staff on courses such as education – I have not got feedback from them yet,” he says.

Unfavourable amenities
But Okoda is only one of many students with special needs who struggle to fit into their learning environments. Maureen is a physically challenged student from Makerere University pursuing a Bachelors in Social Work and Social Administration.
After watching her move on her clutches with difficulty, she finally tells of how difficult it is to maneuver her way through some of the university amenities.

“My biggest challenge is making it to some lecture rooms especially those where I have to take the stairs. Some lectures take place in rooms that are far apart, so I often arrive late since I spend a lot of time walking especially if we switch from one lecture into another,” Maureen says.
She, however, credits the university for the library and some other amenities that cater for students with special needs.

“We at least have a special room for students with special needs on the ground floor and near the entrance of the main library. Some of the new buildings have also been constructed with our needs in mind,” she says.
However, other places such as the toilets, the labs and the stair cases, remain difficult. “I am sure the same goes for those with perhaps worse physical disabilities than mine,” she notes.

Steps being taken
Michael Mubangizi, the Uganda Christian University spokesperson, says the university is still struggling to make the learning environment favourable for learners with special needs. He points out that new structures at the university have been built to suit needs of physically challenged students.
“These buildings have ramps, lifts and pavements ideal for mobility of learners with special needs especially those with wheel chairs,” Mubangizi says.

Consideration is also made when allocating teaching spaces, to ensure that special needs learners are allocated classes that are easily accessible. In the dining hall, there are tables reserved for students with special needs near the entrance.
“Providing an ideal environment requires heavy financial and personnel investment but we continue to improve by the day,” he says.

Personal effort
But Joseph Mudambo, the head teacher and instructor at Atiak Technical School, says although the challenges are enormous, a student can overcome some of them in the available learning environments, he says. “A few years ago, for example, we had a blind student who was studying construction, and was very good at it,” Adilo says, adding that though they try giving students with special needs special attention, instructors still need the skills of how to effectively teach but also work with them and equipment tailored to their use.

Conclusively, Okoda believes that sign language should be taught in institutions and universities to enable graduates interact and work in inclusive communities. “However, the problem is not only in institutions of learning but with other social circles such as health centres, hospitals, on the roads, and courts, among others.”

Implementing inclusive education
According to Sarah Ayesiga, the Ag assistant commissioner for Special Needs and inclusive Education in the Education ministry, true inclusion in education happens only when a whole school embraces diversity and creates an environment where everyone belongs.

“The government has done much in regards to betterment of life for students with special needs but more can still be done. There are several drafts that have been tabled in Parliament about students with special needs but they have not been implemented mostly because of financial constraints. However, last year we agreed that we should again table the Uganda National Development of Inclusive Education Policy whose main aim will be to advocate for inclusive education,” she says.

Train lecturers
In an attempt to demystify the limited supply of lecturers with skills to handle students with special needs, Stuart Oyesigye, a lecturer of special needs studies at Kyambogo University and the general secretary of the National
Association of Special Needs Education Teachers, notes that currently, the only training available to educators in special needs is at primary level.
“Kyambogo University is the only university that offers a Diploma in Special Needs Education. A few Grade C teachers have been trained to support children with special needs on the primary school curriculum,” Oyesigye says.

He also mentions that there are centres connecting tutors in Teacher Training Colleges that have done a certificate course in special needs and inclusive education.
“So, we get two tutors from Teacher Training Colleges to study the course and then they can start training other teachers. However, special needs education is very wide and in most cases it is pertinent for lecturers with an interest in special needs education to pursue the diploma,” he says.