Fifty-five years after independence, and close to a century after formal education was introduced in Malawi, visually impaired students cannot study science subjects at secondary school.
Mostly, Tawonga Chisale and others, have to go out of classroom and find refuge in the resource room to pave the way for Physical Science and Mathematics teachers to teach sighted students.
“When it is time for science subjects, especially Mathematics, Chemistry and Physical Science, I go out because teachers are not disability friendly,” says Tawonga, a Form One student at Mzuzu Government Secondary School.
Chapter IV of the Malawi Constitution provides, in Section 25, that all persons are entitled to education.
To meet this constitutional requirement, government and other stakeholders put efforts in the education sector to ensure that every person has access to education.
The amenities include construction of more secondary schools as well as upgrading existing ones.
This is surely a move in the right direction as year 2030 approaches—the time when the country shall evaluate how it implemented Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number four.
The goal, which is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all, is supported by the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) III key priority area number two.
Both instruments emphasise equitable and inclusive education.
However, Tawonga, 15, and fellow visually-impaired students feel sidelined by virtue of not being included in science lessons.
“I don’t learn science subjects because one day when I complained to a science teacher that when they are teaching they should consider students with disabilities, he slapped me,” Tawonga explains.
The country has some centres for special needs education.
However, it is not uncommon to hear that a school for the visually impaired has closed for lack of food supplies or Braille in the course of a term.
These challenges sometimes extend to national examinations where issues such as having no examination papers in Braille or large print or no invigilators for candidates with visual impairment crop up.
It is a known fact that the current secondary school curriculum is science heavy.
This is because the goal of the Malawi education sector is to produce a generation that would come up with scientific solutions to the challenges that affect the country’s socio-economic development.
To meet this goal, government invests heavily in the education sector as evidenced by the establishment of Nalikule College of Education to train more science teachers.
Additionally, with support from stakeholders and donor agencies such as Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), government is constructing laboratories in secondary schools across the country.
Another student at the same school, Isaac Daza, suggests that government should put in place a policy to ensure that visually impaired students learn Arithmetic and Algebra at secondary school level.
“In Mathematics, government should allow us to be learning Arithmetic and Algebra, except Geometry which requires drawing of shapes and figures,” says Isaac, 19, who is in Form Three.
However, other countries are able to provide secondary school Mathematics lessons to students with visual impairment.
To this effect, Mzuzu Government Secondary School special needs teacher Logen Kumwenda shares his students’ sentiments.
“In primary school, students learn science subjects but when they come to secondary school, they drop because of lack of special equipment and materials such as text books.
“So, visually impaired students should be learning Algebra and Arithmetic but exempted from Geometry,” he says.
The current situation has led to limited career options for students with visual impairment. No wonder most graduates are confined to Humanities, regardless of their potential and zeal for Sciences.
For instance, Wilton Nyirenda, a fourth-year visually impaired student at Chancellor College was forced to study Social Science, majoring in History.
College authorities advised him to do Humanities instead of his desired Public Administration because the latter has science subjects such as Mathematics.
“I felt bad because I never aspired to do Humanities. I wanted to do Public Administration,” Nyirenda says.
Ministry of Education Science and Technology spokesperson, Lindiwe Chide, acknowledges challenges students with visual-impairment face in secondary school.
“It’s true that some visually impaired students are not allowed to learn science subjects in some schools. This has come about due to shortage in specialist teachers in these schools,” Chide explains.
She, however, says the Ministry of Education’s policy encourages that visually impaired learners should study science subjects as well.
“We are addressing the issue by training and deploying more teachers to all schools so that the learners can receive the attention they deserve.
“Some of these practical subjects may require one-on-one attention,” Chide says.
But Montfort Special Needs Education College’s head of Visual Impairment and Deaf Department Paul Sitima says the institution has a module on the teaching of Mathematics and Physical Science.
He, however, says if teachers are posted to secondary schools, they do not practice what they learned.
Sitima wonders why the country brags about inclusive education when a category of students is marginalised in some courses.
“My view is that we are miles away from inclusive education. What is called inclusive education in Malawi is what was called integration in developed countries.
“Many people in Malawi think that inclusive education is about just putting learners with diverse needs in mainstream classes without changes in curriculum as Malawian schools are examination-oriented,” Sitima says.
He adds that other people think that just by erecting ramps and having accessible toilets then that constitutes inclusive education.
“That is just one-tenth of inclusive education. There is more to be done. Know that inclusive education in developed countries is different from what developing countries call inclusive education,” Sitima says.
He suggests that inclusive education schools should be staffed with qualified personnel in different fields of special needs education to provide support to mainstream teachers.
“If there is only one specialist teacher in a category of special needs, he or she may not be able to provide support in areas he or she did not specialise,” Sitima says.
Sitima, who is also an expert in Braille Mathematics, Science and Chemistry, asks government to procure special Mathematics and Physical Science equipment for the visually impaired learners.
He adds that government should also procure enough Perkins Braille machines and assistive computers with Duxbury Braille Translator (DBT) software.
“It should be a project for four years, with close monitoring. Its evaluation should be done after the first group has written Malawi School Certificate of Education,” he suggests. “If other countries are able to provide for their visually impaired students, what is the problem with this country?” wonders Sitima.