By Byron Mutingwende
Children with disabilities have special needs that should be addressed for them to access education without hindrances or barriers. Speaking during a Worldwide Campaign for Education for Children with Disabilities held under the banner “Ring the Bell”, Faith Sithole, the Head of St. Giles Special School in Harare said that all schools should strive to be disability-friendly.
“There is a need to equip schools countrywide with assistive devices and trained personnel in order to assist children with visual impairment, the hard of hearing and physically challenged to access education without barriers,” Sithole said.
In highlighting the problems faced by school-going children with disabilities who use public transport to come to school, Sithole said that commuter omnibus operators demand payment for wheelchairs in the case of those physically challenged as well as bus fare for the children and their assistants.
“In the end it becomes very expensive for the parents and inconveniencing for the child to come to school. With the high levels of poverty in most families, children with disabilities may end up failing to come to school. We thank the government, through the ministry of education’s school improvement grants, which help us acquire assistive devices like wheelchairs, hearing aids, walkers, the braille and computers,” Sithole said.
St. Giles Special School has an enrolment of 145 students, 10 of which are in secondary school while the rest are still in primary education. The 10 students who are doing secondary education failed to go elsewhere because other schools did not have the infrastructure to cater for their special needs.
Teaching at St. Giles Special School is individualised because the children have various needs and the teachers are encouraged to tap into and develop the unique talents possessed by the children. The school has 17 teachers, including the head, who are specialised to cater for the special needs of the children. Learners are taught Shona, English and Japanese languages and also participate in co-curricular activities like, Paralympics, arts and music.
Sithole appealed to the corporate world and well-wishers to equip schools countrywide with assistive devices. A woman from Chiredzi had a child who could not sit on her own. On coming to St. Giles Special School, the child was given a specialised chair and was able to sit – a right she had been deprived of since birth.
A learner at St. Giles Special School, Justice Chitepo said that disability was not inability.
“Disability is not inability. We appeal for support for us to be bought computers that we can use to do our school-work. We can still carry laptops to our homes to do homework,” Chitepo said. His colleague, Takudzwa Rusike said that libraries should be accessible and encouraged the teaching of sign language for those hard of hearing.
More than 300, 000 primary school pupils in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America participated in the annual international ‘We Ring The Bell’ campaign on Wednesday 22 March to draw attention to the right to education of children with disabilities who are not able or not allowed to go to school.
According to a 2015 report by Unicef Zimbabwe which was based upon a sample population of 15,368 households in all the 10 Provinces of the country, the report compares data from people with a disability including children to those without, 19 per cent of children with disabilities did not proceed beyond Grade 7 compared to 14.6 per cent in the control group and the percentage increases for those proceeding to Form 4.
The report highlighted that when children with disabilities attend school, their level of schooling is below that of their peers – literacy rates among people with disability is 77 per cent while that of the control group is at 93 per cent.
“Children with disabilities are much more likely to have had a serious illness that can lead to death in the last 12 months, including high blood pressure, malaria and HIV and AIDS,” the report added. Therefore, the joint campaign on 22 March at St. Giles Special School spearheaded by Leonard Cheshire through its Progammes Officer Turkson Zimbudzana was important to raise awareness on the need to give equal access of education among the able-bodied and children with disabilities.
As part of this worldwide campaign, primary school pupils all over the world will made as much noise as possible for one minute in their schoolyards, using bells, tambourines and drums to attract the attention of policy makers and others who are able to eliminate the barriers that prevent children with disabilities to go to school.
‘We Ring The Bell’ is an initiative by the Dutch Liliane Fund, which collaborates with Leonard Cheshire in Zimbabwe. Together with this organisation, Leonard Cheshire supports children with disabilities, also in education. But much more needs to be done in our country and throughout the world. Schools need to become better reachable and more accessible for children with disabilities. Teachers and teaching materials must meet the needs of these children. Everyone should become aware of the fact that education is a fundamental right, also of children with disabilities. To emphasise this, the Liliane Fund has also published a report in March. This report is based on the most recent and relevant scientific studies on this theme.
In 2015, the United Nations set a number of Sustainable Development Goals. These are the world goals that replaced the Millennium Development Goals in 2016. In these new goals the focus is on those who have not benefited from the Millennium Development Goals, particularly children (and adults) with disabilities.
Their situation has improved only slightly since 2000. Worldwide, more and more children go to school (89%), but this is not the case for children with disabilities. In the low- and middle-income countries, hardly 10% of the children with disabilities go to school. Also in our country, the participation of these children in education is rather low. It is high time to change this situation, and the louder the call sounds all over the world, the better it will be heard.