(Class)Room For All

Guest Writer
21 June ,2016

Ed: This essay is part of a series of essays on education policy in the country. Read part one and part two.

by Nyambura Mutanyi

We have made some progress in making education available to all Kenyan children. In the years since Free Primary Education was instituted in Kenya, we have seen millions of children get to sit in classrooms. Those millions haven’t included a certain demographic: children with special needs. And, we’re giving them short shrift. To quote Malinda Harrahs Ndinda:

Despite the government’s commitment to free primary school education, implementation of integrated education to the physically disabled children is faced with constraints. These include: lack of clarity of the policy of integration, negative traditional beliefs towards disabilities, the approach of implementing integrated education, low parental participation, lengthy assessment procedures of disabilities, lack of adequate specialist teachers, limited data on disabilities and limited access to education caused by high fees levies, lack of suitable transport services and access to mobility aids and suitable physical environment and amenities

The Kenyan National Survey for Persons with Disabilities (2008) found that 4.6% of Kenyans experience some form of disability. Many children with special needs are denied educational opportunities because of shame, fear, ignorance and a lack of access to resources in their communites. This, coupled with a paucity of spaces in which children with special needs can be educated, makes for a dire situation. I posit a solution, though not necessarily a simple or cheap one: make schools inclusive.

This involves catering to the wide range of needs learners have while educating them all in mainstream schools. Contrast this with our current situation in which children with special needs attend the eponymous special schools. This kills two birds with one stone: it gets us closer to truly attaining the goal of education for all while breaking down prejudicial attitudes. Consider this: what difference would it make, in a world that skews ableist, for all children to be in spaces that view – and treat – all learners equitably?

There are a number of special units across the country, providing support for children in those settings who have special needs. They are a good first step but we’re still a long way from fully integrating schools across the country. It’s 30 years this year since Kilimani Primary School integrated blind children into their classrooms and 13 years since it integrated deaf-blind children. Integrated education doesn’t seem to be an ideal that we, as a country, aspire to, yet it affects all of us.

We didn’t set off to educate people with special needs; it is more an accident of history. Before 1946, Kenya did not have any centres dedicated to people with special needs. Their needs were catered for in the context of their communities. However, at the end of World War II, there was a need to rehabilitate the soldiers who came back with life-changing injuries. When the work was done, it made sense to admit young people; the resources were there already. Why waste them? Yet, in the time since, we have continued to treat special education as a supplementary aspect of education. The biggest indicator is that it was religious and philanthropic bodies that catered for the education of people with special needs, while the state paid teachers and maintained boarding facilities. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the state trained teachers who could lead classrooms of the hearing impaired and so on.

Kenya is a country that is married to the idea of human capital as the basis of education. It follows that a societal attitude that assigns low value to people with special needs  would result in a slowness to integrate. If education only makes sense if one will go on to make vast amounts of money and become a consumer, then it comes as no surprise that marginalised people would not figure in the conceptualisation of educational facilities. Consider this from the Special Needs Education Policy Framework 2012 :

Good performance in education, training and research sectors immensely contributes to any country’s national development. Performing education sectors produce appropriate human resource capital that is integral to spurring productivity.

Even in this context, the state makes it an uphill struggle to educated children putting paid its own assertion of the importance of growing human capital. Late funding to special schools has become a perennial issue; every year one reads articles such as this in the paper featuring special school heads enumerating all the ways in which they are in a fix. Which has me thinking: why not integrate schools? Why do we fund schools for children with special needs separately? There are issues with the funding of mainstream schools but, as that article highlights, special schools received their funding after those ones had been funded. Having two funding streams is part of the reason this continues to happen. Inclusive education cuts this out and sends out funding to all children at all schools in one swift fell.

Who will teach these children once they are integrated? This is a major issue as special education qualifications are earned after studies in education, essentially meaning that the average class teacher does not have the wherewithal to deal with a learner with special needs. Consider this: a set-up in which all student teachers have units that result in them acquiring the skills with which to support learners with special needs in their classroom. There might be one who is great at Kenya Sign Language, say, well-suited to work in a classroom with a child who is hard of hearing but skills would not be so few as to merit the extraction of a child from their home environment.

How will we pay for all that this will entail? Education after Early Childhood Education is in the hands of the central government, which increased the donation per student to KES 1,420 from KES 1,020, so it’s not exactly falling over itself to fund education on the whole (see: the recent teacher strikes). But, with a constitution that asserts the equality of all, it may well be a point of public pressure. And what will we need money for at the beginning? Making schools accessible, making resources such as Braille machines, computers and so on available. We will need to review a tax code that sometimes greatly raises the cost of these integral items, and teachers will need to be trained to welcome all learners into their classrooms. And, for as long as we have among us learners with special needs, the resources, financial or otherwise, needed to support their learning process.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. Schools which have integrated or become inclusive thrive; evidence abounds that educating all Kenyan children together is a win for everyone interested in education. A memory stays with me: On the Day of The African Child in 2011, my friends and I go to Kilimani Primary School for a Reading Out Loud event. This sight, this moment: the children reading out loudly and confidently as they touch their sheets of Braille paper. This is inclusive education and this is why we need it: so that every Kenyan child can read out loud, sign and be the very best within the communities in which they come into the world.

Nyambura Mutanyi is a reader who writes about the things that are dear to her: education, politics, literature, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @cmutanyi

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