The ones left behind

It’s a pretty terrible statistic that only 2% of disabled children in Africa attend school, so wherever we go, we are always keen to have the conversation.

So I ask Japhet, our local project partner. “Oh yes, we include disabled children in school, but only one school in Malanga does this at the moment. It has a special unit. Would you like to see it?” We are on a field trip visiting an isolated village which sits on the edge of the Arabuko-Sokoke forest in coastal Kenya.

Now I’ve seen a few schools across Africa which are either dedicated to teaching only disabled children or mainstream schools which claim to include disabled children. I’ve seen them in Uganda and Mozambique and The Gambia and Zambia. And now, it seems, I was going to see one in Kenya. You have to know that of all the state-run schools I’ve seen in Africa, only one approaches a half-decent level of appropriate provision for their disabled students. (And if at this moment you want to yell at me about a particularly brilliant school which you know about, or perhaps even support, which educates disabled young people, then please do. It’s always lovely to hear about inclusive education working.) But before you get too cross, my point is, that the examples of good inclusive education are extremely rare. They probably exist (maybe I’ve just been unlucky in my searches) but you have to acknowledge that they are the exception. And they shouldn’t be. 

So, there I was in Malanga, Kenya, and with hope dutifully springing eternally, we trotted off to Bahati Primary school to see the ‘special unit’ for disabled children there. Below is a couple of pictures. On the left is the “Special” classroom and on the right, is a picture of Ruth, the teacher of the class and her five students.

I asked Japhet, where all the other disabled students were. “Ah, these here,” he said, indicating the five children grouped around us, “They all live in the orphanage. We don’t bring our disabled children here. We used to, but we took them away.” 

And who can wonder?

My heart went out to Ruth. We naturally, and rightly, focus on the plight of the children in these circumstances; but I’ve been a teacher of disabled students; and to be in Ruth’s position – alone in a bare room day after day with absolutely no resources except those you can bring from home with five students with multiple and complex needs, is a pretty depressing prospect for a caring and committed professional.

I looked around the room in disbelief; but I had to ask. “Is this all there is?” 
“Yes.” Ruth looks glum. “This is it.”, she confirms. 
I struggle to think of what to say. “You are the only teacher for these children?”
“Yes, and even I am not full time. At other times of the day, I have to teach another class.”
“And what happens to these students while you are teaching the others” I ask her. Ruth shrugs.
“They stay here.”
“On their own?”
I glance over Ruth’s shoulder at the blackboard. The first six letters of the alphabet optimistically float there in an otherwise barren and gloomy black sea. It’s not much of a lesson.

I attempt to inject some brightness into my voice as I ask, “So what are your plans for the day? What are you going to teach today?” Ruth looks shocked. Her eyes seem to say “Are you kidding me?” But she thinks quickly, “I’m going to take them on a nature walk.” I look down at the children grouped around us on the concrete floor. Four out five of them have quadriplegic cerebral palsy. They cannot walk and could not independently use the wheelchair which sits forlornly in the far corner of the otherwise barren classroom. I ask the obvious question. “But how will they do that?” “I will carry them.” she says, stoutly. I am lost for words.

Since that visit, I have been reflecting. How do we come to this farcical mockery of inclusive education? I’ve since visited some other ‘special schools’ in Kenya and I have come away from all of them with the firm conviction that if it was up to me, I wouldn’t put a kid through that. How have we come to this tokenistic approach to inclusive education where the bare minimum we need in order to say that we ‘do’ inclusive ed, is an empty room and a teacher who is sometimes present?  

What is the solution? Well that’s a good question, but it’s also a question with a huge answer. And you’re not getting it here today and here’s why:

In 2000, the United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These were a set of development goals which were supposed to be reached by the year 2015. The second of these goals was, “to ensure that by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.” Well, 2015 came and went and so following the MDGs, the UN adopted a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the year 2030. The fourth goal of the SDG’S addresses education, and aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” The World Education Forum (which is a bunch of very serious and powerful people from UNESCO and the World Bank) also convened in Incheon, Korea to discuss the implementation of this goal, and adopted the Incheon Declaration for Education 2030. 

So my point is that the best brains in the world and all the global resources available are addressing this problem and 17 years on we still only have 2% of disabled children in Africa attending school and more to the point, the quality of the education they are receiving is, in many cases, tokenistic and represents a very cynical interpretation of what passes for inclusive education. 

We must acknowledge that the UN hasn’t been idle in those 17 years – not by any means. Since the launch of the MDG’s, tens of millions of children world-wide have started to access education where before they were not able to do so.

But, if you are a disabled child in Africa, you are almost certainly being left behind.

So the question we should be asking is not, “What’s the solution?” – that is a question for massive global organisations and resources. What Disability Africa and the hundreds of other small, grass-roots organisations should be asking is, “What can we do in the meantime?” Because it’s in the meantime that matters. Right now, disabled children are having appalling experiences and none of us should expect them to wait another 17 years.