Education is a human right. Actually, every goal in The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development requires education to empower people with the knowledge, skills and values to live in dignity, build their lives and contribute to the development of their societies. However, not many parents of persons with disabilities (PWDs) recognise this, especially in Uganda’s rural areas, because disability is one barrier to children getting education.
The 2017 Education Abstract of the Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) found that about 16 per cent of Ugandan children have disability. And, while there were 172,864 enrolled PWDs in primary schools (representing two per cent of total primary level enrolment of 8,840,589, there were only 8,945 enrolled PWDs in secondary schools (representing 0.6 per cent of the total secondary level enrolment of 1,370,583).
Abbas Luyombo is one of the few PWDs who have had the opportunity to go to school. The third-year student of Makerere University’s School of Law lost his sight when he was six-years-old. According to him, his parents were supportive, probably because they are educated. So, they knew there was a way out of the disability, although they were not sure of it.
“Since there were no specialised schools for the visually impaired in my home area of Matugga (Wakiso District), my parents sent me to Salaama School for the Blind (52km away, in Mukono District) for my primary education. I later joined Iganga Secondary School (155km away, in Iganga District), which has a separate unit for special needs students. It is the only unit secondary school in Eastern Uganda. So, most of my peers came from far-off districts because we wanted quality education,” he says.
Following the passing of The Persons with Disability Act 2006, which provides that government shall promote the educational development of PWDs, government has made commendable strides in promoting inclusive education for all, although there is a lot of room for improvement. The Covid-19 outbreak has enhanced the glaring lack of inclusiveness in the education sector. Since schools were closed, teachers have appeared on radio and television to facilitate lessons for children. However, students with hearing impairment are excluded from the radio lessons, while visually impaired students are excluded in TV lessons and the learning packages in the newspapers.
According to Alex Kakooza, the MoES permanent secretary, over the years, government has provided subvention grants to support learners in 100 special schools and special classes (units) integrated in ordinary schools, all over the country.
“We train and pay salaries for teachers with special needs speciality, and for the last two financial years, we have embarked on construction works in Mbale and Wakiso Schools for the Deaf. We also pay for the overhead costs of these schools, in addition to the work we are doing in other inclusive institutions that are providing education to PWDs,” he says.
However, one of the biggest challenges facing these schools is the dearth of learning materials.
Lack of learning materials
Luyombo says some regions do not have specialised or inclusive schools, forcing students to travel long distances to study. “And, if they are successful in accessing education over a long distance, access to the classroom may be a challenge, especially in unit schools because initially, they were not meant for PWDs,” he says.
Unit and inclusive schools lack disability sensitive infrastructure, such as access ramps or specialised toilets. Luyombo adds that many of these schools do not have learning materials.
“The government does not provide typewriters or hearing aids, so schools must rely on donor aid. Government might distribute a few braille papers, which cannot sustain a student for a school term. For instance, in my school, we had to share Perkins Braillers (a braille typewriter) and when they collapsed, they were not repaired.”
While ICT is a compulsory subject in secondary school, there are few computers on which visually impaired students can use JAWS – a screen reader. Esther Inzikuru Obitia, the education officer for special needs education (SNE) in Arua District, acknowledges the limitations.
“We always get meagre funding from government. Unfortunately, the resource rooms in unit schools are so bare that they are hardly worth the name. They do not have learning materials, and not all students can afford the materials they need. They share whatever is available. You can imagine what its like during examinations,” she says.
However, Mr Kakooza says the ministry purchases learning materials for students. “We buy these materials, just as we buy learning materials in the ordinary schools. But, our budget is constrained. Last financial year, we provided braille typewriters and other materials used by the visually impaired, and hearing aids,” he says.
Section Five of the Persons with Disability Act 2006 provides for the commitment of not less than 10 per cent of all educational expenditure to special needs. However, the proposed education sector allocation for the Financial Year 2020/2021 is Shs3.286 trillion and of this, only Shs2.632 billion is allocated to the development and improvement of SNE.
An Education Policy Brief, The prioritization of persons with disabilities in the education sector between FY 2014/15 – 2017/18, stated that no unit cost is utilised in determining amounts channelled to respective schools per pupil.
Special schools, which are strictly educating special needs children, are allocated Shs29,741 per child, while unit schools, which have separate classrooms for special needs children, receive Shs20,000 per child. Inclusive schools, which combine special needs children with ordinary children, receive Shs18,000 per child as subvention.
In Luyombo’s literature class, the visually impaired students had to buy voice recorders, and then, rely on the other student population to narrate to them entire novels.
A July 2018 Education Sector Disability Compact by the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (NUDIPU) found that the policy on awarding extra time to students with disabilities during examination is not consistently observed across all the faculties and colleges. With majority of instructors not trained in SNE, visually impaired students reported having to be present to read and interpret their papers for their lecturers in order to have their braille exam scripts graded.
Lack of trained teachers
The Uganda National Institute of Special Education (UNISE), in Kyambogo University, is the only institution that trains specialised teachers. However, not every teacher in the country is trained in Kyambogo. As a result, Obitia says, all teachers need refresher courses so that they can have knowledge and skills in inclusive education.
“At least, if they (teachers) are aware about what should be done, it will help both learners with disability and the ordinary learner. SNE means making adjustments, especially where there are too many barriers. But, if these barriers are not identified by teachers, how are we going to make adjustments?” she asks.
If a teacher does not have SNE training, stigmatisation is inevitable. When she was in Senior Five, Lillian Nakibuuka was challenged by her fellow students to contest for the position of deputy head girl. Nakibuuka is visually impaired.
“I agreed, just to test the system. I was successfully nominated but I believe the teachers let this happen because they thought I would lose. But, I won the election with a wide margin. However, the teachers decided that I couldn’t handle the responsibilities that go with the position. They instead offered me the position of library prefect. To avoid more confrontation with the school administration, I took up the offered post,” she says.
Luyombo also experienced stigma in high school as he nurtured his love for debating. “I wanted to lead the debating club but the teachers were sceptical. I was not easily put off, though, and in Senior Five, I got the opportunity. In 2015, I was eventually named the best debater during the Uganda School Debating Championship,” he says.
Special needs vs Unit and Inclusive schools
Irene Murungi’s nine-year-old daughter suffers from a spinal condition that reduced her motor skills. Considering it a mild disability, Murungi and her husband enrolled her in an ordinary primary school in Entebbe.
“My daughter is interested in learning. She can write, although the teacher has to be keen to read what she has written because her hands are not steady. But, since last year, her teachers are advising me to take her to a special school. My husband and I have refused to do that because we do not know what kind of education is offered at the specialised school. In her current school, my daughter can compete with other children of her age. Her interaction with them has greatly helped her development. But, in the specialised school, she will regress, because she will find students who are not at her level – those with severe disability who need specialised teachers,” she says.
Having studied in both specialised and unit schools, Luyombo says specialised schools foster stigma in the community. “The community is isolated from specialised schools. For instance, if you perform highly in a school for the visually impaired, who will get to know of it, apart from your fellow students and teachers? The community will never appreciate what you have done because they have not seen it.”
On the other hand, in unit and inclusive schools, PWDs interact and share knowledge with other learners. “In my unit school of over 1,000 students, possibly 100 of them spoke about my abilities in the community. That is how we change perceptions about PWDs. When you begin changing perceptions in educational institutions, there is a spill over effect in the community,” Luyomba says.
However, the downside of inclusive schools is the violence that some children face on account of their disability. At the height of the civil war in South Sudan, Arua, like other districts in the West Nile region, hosted refugees. Some refugee children attended the same schools as the locals.
“They were coming from a different setting. They were too wild, and there were many cases of them committing violence against children with disability. However, with time, they have been helped to change their attitude towards PWDs,” Obitia says.
Government and parents role
Beatrice Guzu, the executive secretary of National Council for Disability, says there are long-term implications for PWDs who cannot access education.
“The first one is poverty. They will not be able to support themselves because without an education, they cannot secure employment in their adulthood. Also, without education, PWDs are not aware of their human rights, putting them at risk of mental, physical, and sexual abuse,” she says.
A community perspective – Disability Rights in Uganda – through interactive radio polls conducted in December 2019 by Track FM and NUDIPU, found that the community partly attributes low school enrolment of PWDs to discrimination by caretakers (16 per cent), while 51 per cent held government responsible. Most respondents (81 per cent) felt that it is the primary responsibility of the education system to increase enrolment by providing scholarships, recruiting special needs teachers, and making infrastructure accessible.
Lack of an inclusive education policy.
The Special Needs and Inclusive Education Policy has been in draft form since 2011. Guzu agrees that government has the bigger role to play. “The inclusive education setup has not taken off very well, and this has meant that majority of children with disabilities must attend boarding school. However, since many PWDs come from poor families, they require free education, in the form of bursaries, from the government.”
Obitia argues that parents also have a primary responsibility to enrol their children in school. “Some parents tell us there is no hope for a child with disability. But, I usually give myself, and other PWDs working in the local government, as role models. One of the best candidates in the Primary Leaving Examinations last year was a disabled student from Arua. So, we assure them that there is hope for their children.”
Parents also need to be sensitised about the punitive measures stipulated in the Persons with Disabilities Act 2019, that a person who wilfully prevents a child with disability from attaining education is liable, on conviction, to a fine of Shs400,000 or imprisonment for six months, or both.
In the Trac FM poll data, three per cent said children with disabilities should not go to school. Guzu says, “Parents who can afford to, need to support their children to go to school. Some who have the means think it is the duty of someone else to educate their disabled child. The community also needs to support these parents through counselling to encourage them to take their children to school.”
It must be noted that education for PWDs is still a new wave, and if stigma is to be fought, then community perceptions need to change. The only way to change perceptions is to push for inclusion in educational institutions.