Zim failing children with disabilities

Even with the above, the school lacks accessible facilities, such as ramps, wheelchair-friendly classrooms and restrooms. It does not have specialised furniture and equipment, like adjustable desks and computer stations for different physical needs.

TATENDA Madimutsa (9) from Romsley, a communal land about 90 kilometres from Nyazura in Manicaland Province is a child in distress.

He was diagnosed with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a genetic disorder characterised by fragile bones that break easily. He is always seated on the sand outside his mother’s ramshackle home.

Without a wheelchair, the sand is his seat, playground and his canvas given the fragile nature of his bones. His heart breaks as he watches agemates walk to Nzvimbe Primary School in a cacophony of excited chatter.

Tatenda dreams of sitting in a classroom, feeling the weight of a book in his hands, scribbling notes and absorbing knowledge.

But the reality is, he is on the sidelines, a spectator in a world which is moving on without him.

Tatenda's plight, unable to attend school due to physical frailty, reflects a common issue in many rural areas.

Wealthier families might afford specialised schools for children with disabilities, but the poorer ones often rely on local schools, which lack resources and expertise for inclusive education aimed to teach all students, regardless of challenges, in regular classes with appropriate support.

“Inclusion implies a transition from separate, segregated learning environments for persons with disabilities reflected in the ‘special education’ approach, to schooling in the general education system,” part of a Toolkit on disability for Africa authored by the United Nations Division for Social Policy Development read.

However, the implementation of inclusive education in Zimbabwe is problematic even though Zimbabwe is party to the African Charter on Human and Persons’ Rights and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child which promote education rights for all children, including those with disabilities (Articles 11 and 13).

According to Sections 81 (f) and 83 of Zimbabwe’s Constitution, individuals like Tatenda should access special educational facilities and State-funded training, but Tatenda cannot attend Nzvimbe Primary School, 7km away from his homestead due to lack of a wheelchair and tuition fees.

Even with the above, the school lacks accessible facilities, such as ramps, wheelchair-friendly classrooms and restrooms. It does not have specialised furniture and equipment, like adjustable desks and computer stations for different physical needs.

These are common challenges in many rural schools as they try to provide inclusive education, a situation that disadvantages children with special needs.

“Many rural schools do not have emergency evacuation plans that cater for all students, including those with disabilities. This might include evacuation chairs, accessible emergency exits and specific protocols,” Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe president, Takafira Zhou said.

More so, the lack of skilled teachers to attend to children with special needs is another challenge.

Research revealed the absence of specialised training programmes which equip teachers with the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively teach learners with different needs.

There is no training encompassing inclusive instructional strategies, classroom management techniques and individualised support for learners with disabilities. Ongoing professional development opportunities to help teachers stay updated with best practices in inclusive education are absent

In the same predicament with Tatenda is Ruramai (13) from Rutherdale farm in Shamva, Mashonaland Central province, who has been visually impaired since she was four.

“I have never been to school because they do not have facilities that accommodate people like me at Mushambanyama School. My parents cannot afford to send me to better schools in Bindura or Harare,” said Ruramai.

Research showed that Mushambanyama School's curriculum lacks inclusivity and accessibility, missing braille textbooks for visually impaired students, sign language interpretation for the deaf, and simplified materials for those with cognitive disabilities.

This is in stark contrast with some countries across the world.

Europe-based journalist Melody Gwenyambira whose son is visually-impaired said her son has a braille note which makes it easy for her son to read and write notes easily.

“It costs almost £5 000 and they gave it to him for free. In the previous year, they gave him an iPad, and in the coming years, he wants to get a guide dog through them as well,” she said.

“Here children receive support through personalised education, health and care plans designed to meet their unique needs. These plans, involving input from doctors, teachers and psychologists are revised annually.” 

This is impossible in Zimbabwe because there are gaps in laws relating to people with disabilities (PWDs) and implementation is questionable.

For instance, Section 83 of the country’s Constitution makes the realisation of the economic, social and cultural rights of PWDs contingent upon resources that are available to the State, it does not underscore that the State must ensure the progressive realisation of such rights.

“The position would have been better if the Constitution had conferred an obligation on government similar to Article 4 of the CRPD which requires State parties to take measures to the extent of available resources to achieve the progressive realisation of economic, social and cultural rights,” said human rights lawyer Esau Mandipa.

Additionally, the amended Education Act places the burden of providing infrastructure for learners on individual schools rather than the State.

This is problematic because many schools already face financial constraints and have dilapidated infrastructure.

“This means learners with disabilities may have to wait until resources become available before they can access the educational infrastructure and services they need,” said Amalgamated Teachers Union of Zimbabwe president, Obert Masaraure.

In an article titled Zimbabwe’s education law now does more for children, but there are still gaps, child rights governance and protection specialist Rongedzayi Fambasayi argued that the Act is mute on the provision of inclusive and equitable quality education — the cornerstone for sustainable development goal four.

“Arguably, referring to the goal of the Act would have given children a legal claim to decent educational infrastructure, up-to-date study materials, information, communication and technology equipment among others. The Inclusive Education Policy lacks the same legal force as the Act. Policies, unlike statutory law, are not enforceable and may help governments escape compliance,” the article read in part.

To ensure inclusive education in rural schools, government should increase the number of special education teachers through targeted recruitment and training programs.

Schools must have a sufficient number of special education teachers with the pedagogical expertise to meet the unique instructional needs of learners with disabilities.

This can be achieved by offering incentives for teachers to work in rural areas and providing scholarships “Our schools need specialised support through trained special education teachers and assistants. This might include individualised education plans for students with specific needs,” said Zhou.

The presence of a stable political environment which generates the necessary goodwill and national cohesion to develop policies which positively respond to challenges such as lack of inclusivity in the provision of education in Zimbabwe is also key.

“A conducive environment will also allow competent teachers to work in rural areas without fear for personal safety and thus reduce the marginalisation of rural schools. Secondly, the economy must be stable and allow savings and investment in education without the adverse effects of erosion of incomes and allocated fiscal funds,” added Masaraure.

As educationist, Peter Makaya aptly puts it: “Inclusive education is important in combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving an education for all.”

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