In part five of our series on disability and education, supported by Nudipu, Joseph Kimbowa looks at the fact that Uganda has excellent policies on PWDs’ education.
However, these are hardly ever implemented, leaving the PWDs out of every learning cycle.
She can’t hear or talk and only sees objects within a metre’s distance. To express herself, the little girl uses a combination of gestures, pointing, and vocalization.
Seven-year-old Diana Nabikata is deaf-blind, and was born with congenital cataracts and profound deafness.
Despite this impairment, Nabikata, the fifth and last born, is a social girl. She freely interacts with her peers in spite of the communication barrier.
Her mother, Grace Nandege, runs a stall at their home in Bwaise, selling charcoal, banana leaves and various foodstuffs. Her father is a local artisan, fabricating metal suitcases.
By 2012, Nabikata had not started school. Her parents could only afford her primary health care, clothing and food – not her education. Then she got lucky. Through Sense International, a global organisation for the deaf-blind, Nabikata was enrolled at St Mark VII unit for the deaf in Bwanda, Masaka, in June 2012.
Nabikata is now enjoying her right to education. And with this little exposure, she is progressively learning to use Makaton pictures to communicate with her siblings, especially when she is sure they do not understand a given sign.
Nabikata’s case mirrors the plight of many persons with disabilities (PWDs) who find a challenge in accessing quality education in Uganda. While some are lucky to get to school, a bigger number of PWDs remain isolated without any formal education. Most families are reported to deliberately keep their special-needs children at home ‘to protect them from ridicule.’
The 2002 national census estimated that about 2.5 million Ugandans were PWDs with only 2.2 per cent of these having gone beyond primary school. Even the most recent Business, Technical and Vocational Education and Training (BTVET) strategic plan 2011-2020 shows that PWDs are hardly represented.
It cited inadequate facilities and absence of special programmes and trained instructors as major bottlenecks.
As a result, some PWDs have been exclusively catered for by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) while many more are left to suffer helplessly.
Besides the constitution, Uganda has enacted and ratified various laws specifically to protect education rights of PWDs. For instance, the 2006 PWD Act, the 2006 National Policy on Disability and, in September 2008, Uganda ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
Also, one of the principles underlying the implementation of education policies in Uganda is that of inclusive education. The PWD Act 2006 provides that government should commit not less than 10 per cent of all education expenditure to the educational needs of PWDs.
However, Christopher Okecho, the deputy commissioner for special-needs education at the ministry of Education, says this provision is not yet implemented.
“Currently, the department receives 0.01 per cent of the ministry’s budget,” he says, and relates it to the many priorities in the ministry.
This leaves schools to provide the necessary facilities, but these complain of the heavy costs involved.
“It is a bit tricky for us. Sign language teachers are expensive to [hire] and we can’t incur that cost for just a few pupils,” said one administrator at a private school in Kampala.
And in Nabikata’s case, such a school would not suit her. The only means of communicating to her is through touching (Tactile communication). Unfortunately, there isn’t a single institution in Uganda that teaches this skill.
Dr Damalie Naggita Musoke says Uganda has progressive legislation that is yearning for implementation.
“We talk of brilliant laws and affirmative action, but whom do they impact?” Naggita wonders. “Most public schools remain without ramps, Braille machines and qualified special-needs teachers. Where is the implementation then?”
Naggita, who is the dean at Makerere University’s school of Law, did her PhD research on the plight of PWD education in rural Uganda.
“No one knows how many PWDs are out there and how many are getting education. It’s all about estimates,” she says, and calls for the implementation of the Local Government Act to register all PWDs for proper planning.
Paying the cost
Although 64 of the 4,000 government-sponsored students at university are PWDs, these decry the challenges.
Rashid Ssozi is blind and spent five years at Makerere University rather than the usual three.
“It was challenging. There were no braille materials [textbooks or handouts] and I had to hire someone to read notes for me,” he says.
Every year, government would remit Shs 320,000 to Ssozi to buy the necessary materials and Shs 30,000 per semester for his guide but he says this was not enough.
“I come from a poor family and my only source of support was government. A ream of braille paper was Shs 25,000 and I needed at least ten each semester,” says Ssozi, who has always studied through bursaries for his brilliance.
The deaf, on the other hand, are obliged to pay for their interpreters during university lectures. The chairman of the Uganda National Association of the Deaf (Unad), Ambrose Murray, says he tried to lobby for support to no avail.
“Staffing structures at universities do not provide positions for sign language interpreters, guides or note-takers which makes it difficult for the office of dean of students to meet the costs of such assistants,” says Murray.
He even tried to ask for higher allowances for government-sponsored PWDs but “nothing was done.”
Kyambogo’s faculty of Special-Needs Education is the only place that trains special-needs instructors. Their diploma in Sign Language Interpreting has an average of 40 students every year – most of whom opt to work for NGOs rather than teach.
This creates a deficit of instructors in both special needs schools and ordinary schools. But Okecho says all teachers that pass through teacher training colleges should have skills in special needs. These, however, have minor skills and cannot effectively communicate with children with severe cases such as Nabikata.
Even gazetted special needs schools like the Uganda School for the deaf, Ntinda, are challenged. For instance, government remits only Shs 760,000 for every quarter (term) to cater for over 215 deaf pupils in this school. This, according to school deputy head teacher Daniel Othieno, cannot even pay their monthly water and electricity bills.
“You can’t guarantee proper training when we are underfunded, the teachers are not paid on time and no one cares about us,” he says, thanking NGOs for their assistance.
Meanwhile, Josephine Akiru, the country representative for Sense International-Uganda, argues that government should motivate special-needs instructors with bigger pay.
“Some of these teachers would sponsor themselves to acquire more skills but they get discouraged by the poor pay,” she says.
Sense International-Uganda has trained about ten teachers in tactile communication.
Although the second Millennium Development Goal calls for universal primary education, Martin Babu, the deputy executive director at Nudipu, is dissatisfied that there was no clear mention of disability in this goal.
“Our agenda is to see PWDs prioritised in the post-2015 MDG framework especially by ensuring that they get quality education,” Babu said last year.
But Dr Naggita proposes a joint action of mainstreaming and streamlining PWD issues within the responsible ministries.
She quotes the national policy on disability which recognizes that disability issues are multi-sectoral at national, local government and community levels.
“Everyone has to play their roles,” she says. “The ministry of Education and that of Gender are supposed to have active people on PWD education and should be aware of what happens at either side.”
Drop out, no jobs
Nabitaka’s higher education is uncertain. Her sponsorship ends at primary level and the family is not sure of financing her education further. She risks dropping out.
The 2009 Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) report ‘Disability is not inability’ cited rampant dropout rates for PWDs.
It noted that “without appropriate help, many disabled children fall behind and, discouraged by repeated failure, drop out of school.”
In her study, Naggita discovered that PWDs with physical impairment were more likely to progress beyond primary school than their counterparts with visual or hearing problems. Whatever the dropout reasons, Dr Naggita says, PWDs stand no chance in society if they have no education.
“Deny them education and you have buried them,” she says. “Their only leverage is their brains and skills.”
Unfortunately, not everyone reasons like Dr Naggita.
The FHRI noted that, most times, PWDs were left out during recruitment exercises by companies, either because they were short of academic qualification or seen as unable to perform. For instance, Ssozi now has a degree in Mass Communication but is still unemployed, staying with his brother in Kasubi and depending on him.
“I have tried some radio stations but they say there is no space,” he says.
Dr Naggita quotes Section 12 of part III of the Disability Act 2006 which reads: “a person shall not discriminate against a qualified person based on disability regarding any job application procedure, hiring, promotion…”
“I have met many more competent PWDs than the ‘so-called’ able-bodied people,” she says.
However, Okecho’s view is that government is not just seated. He points out that in 2011, Martin Omagor, the commissioner for Special Needs and Inclusive Education at the ministry of Education, championed USAID’s Unity Project, to create policy guidelines for providing services to children with disabilities.
The draft policy, still under review, focuses on teacher training, recruitment, curriculum adaptation and identifies appropriate interventions for special needs children. Okecho adds that all new public schools must have accommodative facilities and at least a special-needs instructor.
Further still, the Skilling Uganda, and BTVET Strategic Plan, 2011-2020, look at mainstreaming interests of PWDs through skills development. There is a planned introduction of PWD compatible facilities in at least 10 selected BTVET institutions.
But head teacher Othieno will only celebrate after this is implemented.
“Government has been singing of constructing the first ever vocational school for the deaf in Mbale but nothing has been done. We can’t be so sure,” he says.
In the same spirit, Female MP for PWDs, Safia Nalule, asked president Museveni to honour his promise of constructing “special-needs schools in every region.”
But Okecho and Nagitta say more inclusive schools should be the target than isolating PWDs in special-needs institutions. These say inclusive education should promote a levelled learning ground for PWDs in mainstream schools rather than sending them to specialised vocational institutions where they will feel less important.
“But if it is the only way they can get quality education, then so be it,” Naggita says.
With Universal Secondary Education (USE) under implementation, Nabikata’s prayer is that she gets a smooth transition into a more inclusive and accommodative system.
This Observer feature was supported by the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (Nudipu).