Are schools doing enough for learners with special needs?

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a teacher helping out a child with special needs at HVP Gatagara

G.S Institute Filippo Smaldone in Nyamirambo, a Kigali suburb, provides inclusive education where pupils with hearing problems and some with mental disabilities study with their normal counterparts. In P1 and P2, they have separate classes for the deaf, while from P3 to S3 all students, irrespective of their condition, study together.

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Children with special needs at HVP Gatagara plays with others

According to Sister Jeanne Uwayisaba, the head at the school, the reason they are mixed up is to help the vulnerable pupils not to feel isolated.

She says their teachers use both sign language and normal teaching to cater for both categories of learners.

She notes that putting them together helps the pupils with disability to learn from their peers, which prepares them to fit in the society.

Uwayisaba points out that every parent with a child with disability would want them to be accepted by their peers and society, as well as to lead regular lives, which she says is easier to achieve if it starts at school.

Helman Nkubiri, a specialist in special needs education working at Sign Language Interpretation and Training Service Limited in Muhanga District, believes that schools are important places for children to develop friendships and learn social skills, especially those with special needs.

Children with and without disabilities learn from each other in inclusive classes, he says.

Nkubiri, however, says for students who are unable to cope academically due to their disability, it’s important to put them in a separate school.

“Such students might have academic, personal, social as well as career development problems. If they are handled in a separate environment, it’s much easier to help them succeed in their lives,” he says.

According to Remmy Nsengiyumva, a teacher for special needs children at HVP Gatagara, they categorise children depending on the degree of the disability of the child.

“For those with severe disability, there is close monitoring starting from teaching them how to walk, hold and even talk depending on their needs. And for those who don’t know how to coordinate their entire bodies, we help them do that as their bones and muscles are not strong,” he says.

Nsengiyumva says if parents see any abnormal behaviour in their children, they should seek help, instead of simply taking to a ‘normal school’ where they are likely not to receive any specialised help.

“Most parents tend to bring such children to the centre when it’s too late. Here it becomes a challenge as the child has grown up without any special support, thus delaying speech, movement, and learning how to co-exist with others, as well as being independent,” he says.

Challenges

Nkubiri notes that education is for all children; however, some children cannot attend school and do not have access to the available free and compulsory education due to variety of special needs issues.

Fisrt, he points out that, for those who might be lucky to get a school, it’s hard to get the special scholastic materials needed, especially reading materials and laptops, among others, more importantly in upper classes.

Nkubiri says for some students, especially those with hearing impairment, hearing aids could better their lives, but most are left out due to the social status of the parents.

Uwayisaba says there is a need for parents with children with disabilities to at least have some basic training on how best they can handle their children during the holiday or whenever they are at home.

According to Placidie Mukashimana, a special needs education teacher at Home de la Vierge de Pauvres (HPV) Gatara, in Gikondo, Kigali, sometimes such children display different behaviours and character, which need to be handled with a lot of care.

She says in such cases there is need for proper support from both teachers and parents.

“It becomes a challenge particularly when parents are unable to cooperate with teachers in trying to support such children,” she says.

Mukashimana, on the other hand, says when students are at school, they show some improvement in class, but the problem, she says, comes in when they go back home.

“Because many parents do not understand sign language or any other way of handling a child with diasability, it becomes hard to communicate or even handle them in a manner that is appropriate while at home,” she says.

Mukashimana says this disconnect makes children with disability forget what they have been taught, simply because at home parents can’t communicate the same way the teachers do.

To avoid this, she says they sometimes organise meetings with parents to guide them and help them on what is required for their children, especially when they are not in the care of the teachers.

What the policy says

According to Janvier Gasana, the director-general of Rwanda Education Board (REB), the policy on inclusive education is aimed at ensuring that children with special needs are not segregated against at schools.

However, he says for those who have severe impairments, they have their own special schools where they are handled with care and a lot of support.

“The policy that exits on special needs education aims at promoting full inclusion and participation of learners with special educational needs. It’s not however intended to stand in isolation, but should be implemented alongside the education sector policy and education sector strategic plan,” he says.

Gasana says there are norms and standards that are followed to ensure such children get the required education.

He says there are specialists who normally carry out inspections to find out if schools are doing what is expected to help children with disability.

“Inspections also include finding out if the teachers have what it takes to teach children with disabilities,” he says.

For the challenges of the learning materials, Gasana says they are still negotiating with different partners to ensure that in cases where students need special materials, they are availed to them promptly.

He adds that there is a need to keep the momentum high so that such children can also benefit the same way normal children do as far as getting education is concerned.

According to Mary Kobusingye, the in-charge of special needs education in the Ministry of Education, schools need to embrace inclusive education so that students with special needs can be enrolled, retained and be able to complete school just like any other child.

She adds that such children need that chance to interact with others so that they learn from them. “There is need to train more teachers and to also educate parents so that they can help such students better.”