The 2013 Education Act provides for compulsory education for every child in Malawi, including those with disabilities. To ensure that children with disabilities are getting equal education, Malawi’s policy and legal direction provides for inclusive education—one where children with disabilities learn together with those without. But, as EPHRAIM NYONDO found out, all is not well with inclusive education on the ground. He writes:
He is not an average Standard Three pupil at Kamwendo Model Primary School in Mchinji. Since he enrolled in Standard One three years ago at the age of nine, he has never known what it feels like to be on position three. He always takes position one or two.
“He is sharp and intelligent,” says David Mutapa, the school’s head teacher.
But 11-year-old Kenneth Shadreck is not like the 4 332 pupils at Kamwendo School. He cannot walk; he relies on a wheel chair. His left palm is crippled—he cannot use it for anything. He also struggles with speech; you need patience and attention just to hear him say his name.
Simply put, Kenneth has multiple disabilities. And he is not alone. He is just like many other children with various disabilities that, in one way or another, affect their capacity to learn.
Some years back, Kenneth would not have been at Kamwendo School learning in the same class as those without disabilities. He could have started his school at a segregated school—the way 33-year-old Malonje Phiri did when he was Kenneth’s age.
Phiri—who has speech and hearing disabilities but now holds a master degree—started his school at Mua School for the Deaf. He is currently Mchinji projects coordinator for Fedoma.
Mua School for the Deaf is highly sophisticated and developed to meet educational needs of A ‘single set of children with disabilities’.
The challenge with such a segregated school, Phiri says, is that the education system is very slow.
“In most cases,” says Phiri of his experience, “a deaf persons’ intelligence level does not match those of a hearing person of same age.”
Generally, what Phiri advances means when children with disabilities learn in segregated schools, their intelligence levels fails to match their age mates that have no disabilities. This, adds Phiri, has implications on the socialisation of children with disabilities in their societies.
This is why, as early as 1994, Malawi Government has been part of the global process of advocating inclusive education. The understanding is that education—though being a process through which people and societies can reach their fullest potential—is also one of the areas in which disability-related and other inequalities are manifested.
In response to disability-related inequalities in education, inclusion has been a major policy initiative, designed to improve the educational opportunities of children with disabilities in many countries.
Inclusion attempts to respond to pupils’ diverse learning needs. It is driven by values which shape a country’s political thought, such as social justice, and economic inequality.
Underpinning inclusion, according to a 1994 study by Unesco, is the principle that children have the right to inclusive education and that it is a more effective education strategy than separation. These values are at the core of the 1994 Salamanca Statement and Framework which Malawi is signatory to.
The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Principles, Policy and Practice in Special Needs Education stipulates that: “Every child has a fundamental right to education, and must be given the opportunity to achieve and maintain an acceptable level of learning”.
It underlines that, “Regular schools with this inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all; moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency and ultimately the cost-effectiveness of the entire education system.”
On legislative levels, Malawi has responded well on inclusive education. The Disability Act of 2012 provides for the development of an inclusive education system as well as for life-long learning.
The Education Act of 2012, on the other hand, provides for compulsory education. In fact, thought the act does not specifically mentions inclusive education, it empowers the Ministry of Education to promote education for all people in Malawi irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, disability or any other discriminatory characteristics.
However, Malawi does not have a specific policy on inclusive education. Apart from just having guidelines on Special Needs Education which define processes for implementation, the Malawi Education Sector Policy and Investment Framework, and the National Policy on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities all recognise inclusive education.
But are the legislative and policy directives translating on the ground?
The story of Kenneth gives a good ground for analysis.
Kenneth’s school, Kamwendo, is a model primary school with over 4 000 pupils, of which 39 have disabilities. It has 59 qualified teachers. Unlike most public primary schools, no pupil at Kamwendo learns under a tree. It has sufficient classrooms that are well ventilated and all of them have disability friendly entrances. Even toilets are disability-friendly.
For the disabled 39, including Kenneth, there is a resource centre well stocked with disability learning materials and also a resource teacher, Henderson Chanza, who is qualified to teach children with special needs.
“My job,” says Chanza; “is to help children with learning disabilities, especially if they fail to grasp what they have been taught in an inclusive class.”
Pupils like Kenneth go to Chanza to find out more from what they have learnt and Kenneth, according to Chanza, is a regular.
And when asked to choose between learning in an inclusive class and a segregated class with Chanza, Kenneth says: “With Mr Chanza!”
“You see, in a normal class, our teacher speaks very fast. I sometimes fail to follow the lesson. I always struggle to ask questions because I speak slowly.
“This does not happen when I am with Mr Chanza. He teaches slowly and I understand everything he says. That is why I am able to get good grades during tests,” explains Kenneth, a first born in a female-headed family of three.
Yet, despite that, Kenneth feels the school environment at Kamwendo is quite encouraging.
“The head teacher is a good man. Sometimes he gives me money to buy freezes. I love my friends, too. They don’t shout at me. They also help push my wheelchair. I don’t want to leave Kamwendo School,” says Kenneth, whose dream is to become a teacher.
“I am inspired by my teacher Mr Chanza,” he says. n