How to deal with students with disability at school?

Bernard Mugisha was born with eyesight impairment. He is now a graduate with a well-paying job in a top organisation. He recalls his academic journey as challenging.

“Despite my resilience, I sometimes felt saddened by my situation. However, I could not allow myself to be the victim of a situation; rather I encouraged fellow students in similar situations to have confidence and be active in class and outside. The highest point for me was when I passed with good grades and got admitted to the University of Rwanda,” he says.

Mugisha’s situation is what the special needs education policy of 2008 hoped to address. The policy aimed at ensuring that all categories  of  learners  with  special  needs  access  quality education that provides   a  minimum  package  of  material  support  to  learners  with  special  educational  needs, as well as flexible  and  accessible  alternative  opportunities  for  learners  with  special  education needs. 

Elizabeth Niyongana, a psychologist with ‘Tubarere Mumuryango Programme’ at the National Commission for Children, says children with mental and physical disabilities in most cases are faced with stigma and are excluded from school and community life as a result.

She says traditionally children with disabilities were considered ‘unable’ in most cases which usually came with the lack of financial means to cater for their special needs. Some missed out on education because of their parents’ limited capacity or schools lacking special equipment and staff to cater for their needs.

“Living with a disability is one of the most common barriers to children and youth as many of the disabled students feel excluded at school,” she says.

Niyongana says vulnerable students may be treated differently in the classroom by their teachers and peers, and may feel like they do not belong. This could happen unintentionally or due to a lack of understanding.

This, however, begs the question of how to create a more inclusive environment for disabled students at school.

Alfred Mwenedata, a lecturer at University of Kigali, says the best way to deal with these students is to know how to interact with them since they might be hurt unintentionally by their fellows.

He says the communication should be cordial and simple so that they can as well be able to express their inner emotions and feel included in the school life.

“They should not be ignored no matter the disability they have,” he says.

Alex Mushumba, the head teacher, Martyrs Secondary School in Kigali, says teacher‘s shouldn’t categorise the vulnerable children separately from others. Rather, he says, they should be helped to fully participate in the classroom sessions or out-of-class activities like games and others.

Mushumba says to create an inclusive class environment; teachers should take time to identify the individual needs of all disabled students by accessing their abilities, disabilities, personalities, strengths and weaknesses.

“I think all schools should organise annual games for students with disabilities so that they explore talents among them,” he says.

Nehemiah Bacumuwenda, the curriculum specialist in charge of pedagogical norms at Rwanda Education Board, says they are aware of the need for innovative development of sustainable inclusive education.

He reiterates the need for collaboration between local leadership and public education organs in promoting inclusive education in Rwanda.

“All these improvements drew attention to inclusive education programmes countrywide, where inclusive education perspectives were progressively integrated within social services, domesticated by the respective school communities and local leaderships in close collaboration with both the local and the international NGOs,” he says.

For Herbert Turinawe, a teacher at King David Academy in Kigali, vulnerable children need always to be supported emotionally and spiritually.

“It is said that where there is a passion, there is success; therefore, no matter how vulnerable they are, their talents can be nurtured. All they need is the right support,” he says.

Issah Katabarwa, the programme manager, UWEZO Youth Empowerment Organisation Rwanda, says the major challenge in the education of the disabled students is lack of infrastructure.

He says in Musanze District, for instance, the big number of schools surrounded by hills makes it complicated for such children to go to school.

Katabarwa adds that few teachers understand sign language for the deaf, making their education cumbersome.

“Lack of screening services to know the extent of disability of the children is also another challenge. Nevertheless, in our advocacy we still face some challenges since many schools do not take monitoring and accessibility of the disabled children seriously,” he says.

Rosine Mukarusine, a university student living with disability, says social stigma is most common challenge among youth as they get ridiculed by their fellow students.

“I, therefore, think there is need for sensitisation programs about the rights of students with disability. Schools should also take the initiative to recruit staff trained in handling children with disability,” she says.