Children at school have different needs and wants. It, is thus; ideally wrong to assume that school environment should be ‘one-size-fits all’.
It is the failure to conceptualise this reality that has created schools without safe, healthy and protective environments that meet the specific needs of the handicapped children in Rwanda.
It is vital to note that all Rwandan children today go to school, under the recently introduced Nine-Year-Basic-Education programme.
Overall, this is an important development as far as developing and enriching the lives of people in the country is concerned. We should ,however, know that this educational improvement must cut-cross the all children of Rwanda.
For the disabled children, school is not always a positive experience. The environmental conditions should be conducive for their learning, even when they are handicapped so that no child is left behind.
Dr. Charles Nkuranga, a senior Government civil servant in the Eastern Province, said that learning the environment must be a sanctuary for children to learn and grow, with inborn respect for their varied identity and needs.
“Handicapped children in schools have unique backgrounds and circumstances that we, as parents and teachers, must respect. We should be determined to make their dreams come true. Children need to enjoy staying in schools,” he said.
Nkuranga emphasised that for schools to become conducive environment for all learners, “stakeholders in the education sector have to show great cause of the needed changes.”
Yvonne Murekatete, a Head Teacher at Fumbwe Primary School in Rwamagana district said that every school has to find ways and means of including all types of learners.
“Schools need to construct and maintain facilities that are; part of the learning environment, hygienic and safe for children of all categories,” she said.
Murekatete who has been serving as a teacher for the last 17 years, said that most schools have facilities that are convenient for adults and not children.
“In some schools where facilities are available, it’s lamentable to find that, for example, the toilets only suit adults. This is an unacceptable!”
“There is need for child friendly environment at all schools that are safe and holistic,” Murekatete said.
Disabled children, especially in the rural parts of Rwanda, have on several occasions, dropped out of school due to walking long distances to and from their schools. The hilly topography, the long distances on narrow paths, coupled with the type of wheel chairs that disabled children use, practically make it impossible for them to stay in schools.
Jeanne d’arc Muhayimana, 16, is physically disabled and a primary-three school drop-out, who said that there is no way disabled children in rural areas can attend school under the prevailing unfriendly environment.
Muhayimana said that she dropped out of school after finding out that she was not only a burden to herself, but also a burden to her friends and relatives, who struggled to push her to and from school every day.
“The nearest school in our village is in six kilometers; so just imagine pushing a wheel chair through the steep hills of Musha. It just didn’t work and I had to quit school,” Muhayimana said.
The situation of disabled children is a challenge that can be overcome with a change in attitude. Discrimination and neglect must be done away with. Some parents, out of ignorance, give disabled children dehumanizing names because of their physical appearance.
responsible stakeholders have an obligation to protect children from such forms of discrimination by dealing with the root cause—ignorance.
Peter Mugisha, a retired psychologist said that; “Disabled children have the right to special care and education so that they can enjoy living a decent lifestyle in dignity. It is possible for them to achieve their maximum level of self-reliance and social integration.”
The way forward
Despite these challenges, there are a few specialized schools in Rwanda that exclusively take in disabled children.
These schools should, however, be equipped with the necessary facilities that make learning comfortable for disabled children. These schools should be places where the disabled feel protected, empowered and trained to cope with various life situations.
Additionally, accessing physical structures like houses or vehicles, public places or offices, toilets, walkways, among other things, should be simplified for the handicapped.
Until this happens, Rwandans shall witness the end of the misery that handicapped children face while at schools and in public places.