Rwanda: Educating children with disabilities

In this post, guest Sarah Beeching continues our series on education and political inclusion for people with disabilities. Sarahs earlier post, The Missing Millions, described international efforts to promote access to education for people with disabilities, and was followed by Bahadir Celiktemurs post, Disability and Political Inclusion. Here, Sarah reports on a recent visit to Rwanda, and describes two approaches to education for children with disabilities that have been implemented there.

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Since 2000, Rwanda has made impressive gains in providing access to education for all children. With primary access now standing at around 94%, Rwanda is amongst the top achievers in the African league table. However, there is a huge discrepancy between urban and rural access to primary and secondary education. Often children enter school late, poorly equipped to learn and stunted, due to poor nutrition in early childhood. Great variations in quality of teaching, especially with the Government’s decision to switch all teaching to the English language, mean that children often leave school poorly equipped to enter the workforce.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAgainst this backdrop, children with disabilities are one of the hardest groups to reach and integrate. Although access for children with disabilities is one of ten priority areas in the Government’s education plan, a child with disabilities is four times more likely to drop out of school than one without disability – if they get into school in the first place.

There is no credible data on the nature and scale of disabilities amongst the in- and out-of-school population. It is estimated that 1 in 10 Rwandan school children has a disability, compared to 3 in 10 in the general population – suggesting that only 1 in 3 of Rwanda’s disabled children attends school. Without further differentiation of non-existent data to unpack what ‘disability’ means, it is impossible to tailor a strategy to the different and often multiple special needs of excluded children.

Rusizi is the poorest of Rwanda’s 18 districts, a remote, rural region bordering DRC, an area of outstanding natural beauty and the nation’s worst educational outcomes. In my recent visit I saw two very different approaches to meeting the needs of children with disabilities in the education sector.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANgwino Nawe is a term-time home for about 80 children with special needs. Two thirds of the children are deaf and mute. Many have physical disability and other cognitive special needs, though it is notable that there are no blind children: their needs are considered too specialised for the centre to support. The children come from a large catchment area and most would not be able to attend local schools due to a lack of suitable facilities, signing teachers, and training for the curriculum and pedagogy adaptations that these children require. All children at Ngwino Nawe spend several months in adaptation classes designed to integrate them into the local primary school. Sign language is the main form of communication, regardless of hearing ability. At Ntendaze school, the local primary, the children are supported by signing translators in all classes. The school runs in two shifts with about 40 children per class, large by UK standards, but much smaller than most class sizes in other parts of Africa.

For those unable to attend mainstream school, Ngwino Nawe offers a programme designed to enable each child to reach his or her potential. The carers offer support to the families of children with disabilities (there are a number of orphans at the centre) and there is an active parents’ association. Although there are definite advantages to the boarding school model – perhaps as a stop-gap solution where inclusion is not possible or practical – there are detractors too. Some believe that it lets parents and communities ‘off the hook’ for caring for their disabled children, and makes it harder for children to be accepted into their communities during holidays and once their schooling comes to an end.

Nkanka has a very different model: a day centre for children with disabilities. Most walk very long distances and can only come two or three times per week. One sibling group of four deaf children walks five hours in each direction, three times a week, to attend the centre. The children are taught to sign and have been provided with hearing aids. However, they do not follow a formal curriculum and cannot ‘graduate’ from school with a certificate. The school local to Nkanka will only take children able to attend every day. Schools close to where children live simply do not have the facilities or trained staff. The ethos of this facility rests on the importance of communities and families taking responsibility for their children with disabilities. Yet without a boarding facility, it is impossible for the children to access a proper education. What Nkanka shows clearly is that the demand for education is unequivocally there: sadly provision lags far behind.

Although both Ngwino Nawe and Nkanka receive some assistance from the Government, neither are fully integrated into the Government’s education strategy. There is a gulf between central government policy and the resources required for local implementation. Both Ngwino Nawe and Nkanka fill a gap in provision but are heavily reliant on funds from charities.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASadly, realising the right to education for all children will take time, and stop-gap solutions such as those described will continue to be essential. However, as communities and families see the progress that their children with disabilities are able to make, and understand the nature, and in some cases the cause, of the disability, there is an insatiable demand for education. Hopefully politicians and policy makers will focus greater attention and resources on this issue and make the right to education a reality for all.

Sarah Beeching is the Executive Director of Oshun Partnership. Oshun are conducting a review of DFIDs work on education for children with disabilities for the Global Campaign for Education

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