Christopher Nkhoma is not an ordinary pupil. At 21, he is in Standard Two at Thete Primary School in Dedza.
Nkhoma is a slow learner who has special needs education (SNE) to thank. But more importantly, he is determined and ambitious.
“I want to become an engineer and work for Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) in future,” he says.
When he speaks, his words are slurred. But he has no doubt he will live his dream, to the extent that fellow learners and teachers at the school simply address him as Mr Engineer.
However, it will require the patience of his special needs teachers at Thete to help him realise his dream. At the age of two he suffered from epilepsy and doctors diagnosed him with slow brain development.
In between his epileptic seizures, he would become violent and beat up his friends. As such, his parents withdrew him from school.
Mother groups in Thete area have been conducting joint meetings with Parents of the Disabled Children of Malawi (Podcam) and Special Needs Education (SNE) Montfort College, where Nkhoma lives, to encourage community members to send children with disabilities to school.
It is because of these meetings that Nkhoma found himself back in school despite his age.
One of the special needs teachers at Nkhoma’s school, Triphonia Katsabola, says everyone has the responsibility to raise awareness on the need to promote the rights of children with disabilities.
Katsabola says the learning environment for special needs pupils has greatly improved at her school.
She further says the awareness meetings have helped community members to contribute teaching and learning materials made from locally-available materials.
“Again, the provision of assistive devices such as Victor Daisy Readers, magnifying glasses and hearing aids enable learners with disabilities to get quality education,” Katsabola explains.
The community initiative is happening under a project called ‘Power of Equitable Access to Education for Children with Disabilities’ which is being implemented by Montfort Special Needs Education College in partnership with Scottish charity organisation Christian Blind Mission (CBM) International.
The three-year project started in August 2013 and is xpected to end this month.
According to Montfort SNE College project coordinator Ben Chikaipa, the project targeted nine schools, namely St Maria Gorreti and Bandawe primary schools in Nkhata Bay, Nkhotakota Primary School in Nkhotakota, Dowa One and Mvera primary schools in Dowa, Dedza and Thete primary schools in Dedza, and Gumbu and Nsiyaludzu primary schools in Ntcheu.
“The project’s overall goal is to improve the quality of and access to education for children with disabilities.
“The goal is meant to be achieved by increasing levels of stakeholders’ collaboration through supporting resource centres to have improved learning environment, promoting positive attitudes towards children with disabilities among authorities within the education sector and increasing the number of children with disabilities from 0-8 years accessing improved early childhood development interventions,” explains Chikaipa.
He says through the project, 43 specialist teachers had capacity building training in the appropriate use of equipment, technology and learning resources.
“Competence-based training initiatives were lined up to equip specialist teachers with skills and knowledge on how they can apply technology in managing learners with disabilities,” says Chikaipa.
The technology used includes assistive devices such as Victor Daisy Readers, hearing aids and making chairs for cerebral palsy learners.
In the 2014/15 school year, Dedza Primary School managed to send two learners with disabilities to secondary school because of the use of improved learning equipment and technology. One went to Blantyre Secondary School and the other was selected to Ntcheu Secondary School.
The collaboration among stakeholders to raise awareness on the importance of educating children with disabilities has seen enrolment figures of learners with disabilities rising in the centres. For instance, Thete Primary School Resource Centre opened in 2010 with five learners. Currently, the centre has 22 learners.
The same is the case with Dedza Primary School, where enrolment has increased from 22 to 38 learners over the project period.
The school premises have also been made disability- friendly by levelling rough ground patches and covering open drainage areas.