Claude Uwihanganye, 12, (pictured) lives in Muhanga district in the southern province of Rwanda, a hilly area west of the capital, Kigali. Claude had polio as a small child and until recently did not go to school. It wasn't the hills that stopped Claude from joining local children in class, but an uphill struggle of a different kind.
In Rwanda, children with disabilities typically face discrimination and are excluded from school and community life. Silas Ngayaboshya, a local programme manager for Handicap International (HI), says that "many families hide their kids at home because having a disability is a shameful thing for the child and the family, as it's considered to be a punishment from God".
Rwanda's ministry of education says that 10% of young people have disabilities, while the Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report 2010 concludes that the number of disabled children at school is likely to be small. A few attend their local mainstream school, though most go to special schools and centres in urban areas, too far for most Rwandans and mainly for children with visual or hearing impairments.
Despite these shortcomings, Rwanda's education system overall is considered to be one of the most progressive in Africa. The government recently introduced free compulsory education for the first nine years of school for all Rwandan children (this initiative is expected to increase to 12 years from next year). According to Unicef, Rwanda now has one of the highest primary school enrolment rates in Africa (95% of boys and 97% of girls in 2009).
Awareness about the rights of children with special needs to participate in their communities, or perhaps a lack of special schools in rural areas, has led to a "child-friendly" schools programme that aims to include all educationally vulnerable children in mainstream schools.
Currently, the ministry of education and Unicef fund 54 "child-friendly" schools across Rwanda, which also provide "best-practice" examples to other schools in their cluster areas. A 2009 Unicef report on the initiative indicates that they have assisted 7,500 disabled children. The government is aiming to expand the programme to 400 schools nationwide by 2012, and has also adopted it as the basic standard for all Rwanda's primary schools.
HI is prominent among the NGOs that manage the programme. It aims to increase the number of disabled children attending mainstream schools by linking schools with special centres for disabled children. HI works with local education authorities, families, disabled children and their non-disabled peers and local communities, and engages in awareness-raising. It locates not-at-school disabled children, provides teacher training, improves accessibility and infrastructure, and develops inclusive education policies at governmental level.
With the support of HI, Claude was able to join the neighbourhood children at Kabgayi primary school. At first Claude was unable to walk to school and was ill-prepared for classroom life. But after intensive physiotherapy and some basic education he became more independent and was ready for school.
Ngayaboshya, who worked with Claude, says that his inclusion plan also involved preparing the teachers and the other children at his school through measures such as pinning up Claude's picture in the classroom, talking in class about how disability can occur, inviting the class to contribute ideas that could help to include him, and encouraging Claude's father to visit the school and show teachers simple measures to assist his son.
It took weeks to integrate Claude into school life, but he now gets good grades and is making friends. And he walks over a kilometre every day on his crutches to go to school. Although it is a long way he doesn't mind the journey, and is excited about the classroom.
Ngayaboshya says that, from 2007 to the present, HI has supported almost 4,000 children to attend mainstream education in 78 schools. "It's very, very amazing", says Ngayaboshya, when talking about Rwanda's uptake of children with disabilities in local schools. "It shows how open to new ideas our people can be."
Dr Evariste Karangwa, a leading educator and dean of the School for Postgraduate Studies and Research at the Kigali Institute of Education (KIE), says there have been "encouraging transformations" in both special and regular schools over the last five years. "But," adds Karangwa, who also founded the department of Special Needs Education at KIE through which all rookie teachers in Rwanda now gain some training in inclusive education and meeting the needs of children with disabilities, "this doesn't mean it's all OK. I'm not happy with the rate of change: a big number of children with a disability don't go to school, while many who do go don't achieve or drop out".
Karangwa estimates that 54 primary schools out of the total across Rwanda can be described as "good".
Undoubtedly there are complex challenges for disabled learners in Rwanda. These include the lack of awareness among families that children with disabilities can attend school; poverty (poor families might need their children to support them with looking after animals, fetching water or firewood); the effects of the genocide in 1994, including the massacre of thousands of teachers that has reduced their numbers (the pupil-teacher ratio in Rwanda is as high as 60:1 according to HI); and the burden placed on resources by a curriculum shift from French to English as the official language of instruction.
However, the biggest challenge continues to be the stigma that society attaches to people with disabilities. Karangwa says: "The only way forward is to change the mindset of the decision-makers – the teachers, parents, community and policymakers – and this hasn't happened in a big way yet. Until attitudes about these kids change, there won't be enough political and community will to put enough investment for the specialised aids and equipment and training of teachers that children with special needs require to learn."
While there is still work to do, there is no doubt that the strategies being implemented now are making a difference to a growing number of disabled learners and their families.
Claude's father Joseph, who understands that for families such as his any hope of breaking out of poverty lies in education, says: "Parents with disabled children, who are stuck at home … must be strong and take them to centres. My child was really suffering and now it is totally different."
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
The Guardian in the UK:
Posted by BA Haller at 8:26 PM