Twelve-year-old Jonathan attends Chazungwa, the only primary school that accommodates special needs students in Mpwapwa district – Dodoma region, he lives with a disability.
“He often gets livid having to walk 30 kilometers daily to attend classes,” his mother, Sarah Thomas narrates to Success in an interview.
“More often than not I’m engrossed in worries that he may get in an accident during his commutes because the roads are full of cars and motorcycle. I’m not able to find him transport every day,” she says, adding that she doesn’t earn enough from seasonal farming.
Success conducted a survey in the rural suburbs of the district and established that the education barriers for children living with a disability were profound but controllable.
For instance, Sarah says at times her son refuses to go to school because of the harassment he receives from his classmates, including exclusion and a long-distance he has to cover daily.
“…there is only one teacher who understands my son and has always encouraged him to soldier on, but my son, who also suffers from hearing impairment struggles academically,” Sara says.
“My son is afraid to even go to school because he feels no one will be taking care of him... If there were arranged means of transport for our vulnerable children, it would have helped in providing them with the needed education,” she adds.
For his part, Japhet Mwikaria, 42, a father to 11-year-old Momburi, who has a physical disability that limits the movement of one side of his body, says his son has never been in a classroom because he can’t walk and has no supporting equipment.
“My son has been sitting at home. He really admires going to school with his brothers and sisters, but cannot. Even if he asked me, I would say again and again that he couldn’t walk,” narrates Mwikaria.
“I was told by a teacher who specialized in teaching students of this nature that they were ready to teach my son, with the caveat that their teaching is not remote,” he says.
Teachers speak out
Mr Hussein Hussein, a specialized teacher at Chazungwa primary school (inclusive school) that hosts students with blindness/low vision, hearing impairment/dumb, intellectually disabled and those with physical maladies says most children with infirmities in the district never attend school.
“It has become a challenge for us to register these students with physical disabilities because we don’t have transport and given their nature, they will need some other help that is costly. We would like to have them here but at the moment it has proven difficult,” explains Hussein.
Mr Hussein, who has been handling the group for more than 10 years, says even those who are able to go to school have had a tough experience too.
He tells Success that even though the school wishes to enroll more students with physical disabilities, infrastructures do not meet the basic accessibility standards for persons with physical challenge.
“The environment in school is still not good. There are students who are not supposed to be exposed to noise, but our school is located on the streets, where there is a lot of noise. Further compounding the inconvenience is lack of accommodative classes, scholastic material and toilets as well,” he reveals.
“We don’t have access to tools such as Braille machine or audiotape, or sign language interpreters,” explains Mr Hussein, saying out of 49 enrolled special needs students in 2020, only 18 had reported back in school after three months of imposed closure amid Covid-19 pandemic. He also says, of the 49, only 27 were active attendees all being those who can walk.
The specialized teacher says that having more individuals with his qualifications will help a great deal in dealing with the current predicament.
According to Jones Manase, an education consultant in the district, children with disabilities normally have extra costs associated with their learning, which includes the need for educational assessment, personal support and care, assistive devices, as well as support with transport or medical costs.
“Despite the country’s efforts to make free education available for all, a large percentage of children with disabilities here are not enrolled because of such challenges,” he reveals.
Mpwapwa district education officer for primary schools, Mary Chakupewa says they understand the challenges students with disabilities are facing, and insists that the government is striving to promote equal education for all.
“We are aware that these students need extra care especially in getting study materials. The government has always provided the necessary requirements but we also need education partners to get on board so we can all together improve the learning environment of students in our district,” she says.
Meanwhile, the government spent at least Sh2.3 billion in the 2019/20 financial year to purchase educational materials and support for special needs students in 708 primary and 45 secondary schools in the country.
Dr Edwin Ndyetabula, a Dodoma-based psychologist says education for all should mean the opportunity for every child, no matter where he or she is born, to have access to quality education.
“It’s a concerning situation to have children with disabilities not enjoying the education process equally when compared to their able-bodied counterparts,” he lamented.
Dr Ndyetabula says that for education to be inclusive it must take into account the diversity and different needs of all learners.
“Inclusive education strategies should address the barriers faced by learners who are marginalized due to their disability, gender, socio-economic background, religion or ethnic origin among other factors. Students with disabilities in rural areas are even more vulnerable,” he says.
For her part, Dr Veronica Deus, a psychologist based in Dar es Salaam notes that lack of trained staff and early screening in public school was problematic because when disabilities go undetected, more damage is done to the child’s educational progress.
“There needs to be enough flexibility to ensure that each individual child’s learning needs are met. Have an approach that aims to adapt to the child’s needs rather than expecting a child to conform to a predefined set of norms and standards,” she says.