22 January 2013

Uganda: Disabled At University - a Glass Half-Full, Half Empty

This is the second feature in our 10-part series analysing policy and practice on disability in Uganda.

Alon Mwesigwa writes that the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act has had a positive impact, but a lot remains to be done to improve the lives of disabled students.

He talks of his impending graduation with anupbeat smile.

"I have all my results. I haven't paid the graduation fees, but I am sure I will graduate," he says.

When you ask him about life at university, however, he frowns. His excitement about his glorious end belies a hidden sadness about the means he has had to go through to get here. When Rashid Ssozi, 30, was admitted to Makerere University in 2006 to do a bachelor's degree in Mass Communication, he hoped to find a conducive environment for a special needs student.

But Ssozi, who is visually impaired, would find the terrain rough. He did the three-year course in five years - not that he is dull, but because the environment at Makerere University was simply not favourable for a disabled student.

"I must confess that my stay at the university was hard," he says. "I reached a time when I didn't have a guide; no one could work for just Shs 30, 000 a month, [the money given to a guide for special needs student]. Unless someone is your relative, no one can work for that money?"

On another occasion, Ssozi says, he had to redo an economics paper because a guide misread for him the exams time table.

"I came late for the paper and when I laboured to explain to the lecturers what had happened, they told me to try another year. I must say the lecturer was unfair to me."

Every academic year, Ssozi received Shs 350, 000 to buy materials to use at school as a blind student. He would buy writing materials like paper braille, talking calculators, Perkins braille, among others. But he says the money was not enough. A realm of paper Braille, for instance, cost about Shs 25, 000 then. He needed about 10 a semester, meaning paper took up 70 percent of the facilitation money.

Ssozi is one of the special needs students that are admitted at universities and other tertiary institutions on the affirmative action ticket every year. Article 24, 2(b) of the Universities and other Tertiary institutions Act (2001) says every person with disability should be given an opportunity of acquiring higher education. The act also provides for the accessibility of physical facilities to all users of the public university including Persons with Disabilities (PWDs).

This is in line with the UN convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which, in article 24(5), states: "...[government must ensure that] persons with disabilities are able to access general tertiary education, vocational training, adult education and lifelong learning without discrimination and on an equal basis with others"

Observers point out that because of the Universities and other Tertiary Institutions Act, many more students have been able to access higher education than would have been previously possible.

Of the 4, 000 students admitted on government sponsorship to public universities every year, about 64 are special-needs students. They are admitted by the Public Universities Joint Admissions Board (PUJAB) at Makerere, and then distributed to other institutions according to where their courses of choice are offered.

But Ssozi and others like him say the environment for students is yet to adapt to their needs as PWDs. For instance, at Makerere University, many buildings have no ramps, yet some lectures take place in the upper floors. With no lifts, or with lifts that are not easily accessible by the disabled, it means some students cannot access certain lecture rooms.

Esther Kyozira, the manager for Disability and Human Rights programme at the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (Nudipu), applauds the achievements so far, but also talks about the empty half of the glass. The act, for instance, does not define a special needs student, with bonafide disabled students sometimes being left out. An albino, for instance, is not regarded as a PWD by most institutions.

"Unless he/she has another disability like being visually impaired, they (albinos) can't be admitted. It is also just recent that they started accepting little people among the disabled."

Also people with mental disability can never be admitted on the affirmative action basis. Universities say claim that the mentally disabled can later become a problem to the university.

"It is ironical that when such students go there on private sponsorship, they are admitted," Kyozira says.

Another challenge is the high dropout rate among PWDs at the lower school levels. The UN convention states in article 24 (2) that, persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability, and that children with disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary education, or from secondary education, on the basis of disability.

However, they are covertly excluded by the expensive school materials like Braille paper, Braille machine, walking sticks, and money for guides and special lenses.

For a person who cannot afford all these, it is hard to continue with studying. And once PWDs drop out early on, tertiary education is all but ruled out for them.

Joseph Ngobi, the spokesman for the ministry of Education, wants credit to be given where it is due.

"If you compared the past and today, the plight of PWDs has improved," Ngobi says. "Before this [Universities] act, we must agree that the number of these people (PWDs) joining higher institutions was negligible. Let us appreciate what is there and keep advocating for more. Yes, we admit that there are challenges, though."

Lawrence Madete, the Information officer at Kyambogo University, also argues universities are doing their best.

"We are on the right track. For instance at Kyambogo, all the lecturers who teach special [needs] students have been trained in special needs education - this makes their work easier and so the work of the students," he says.

"We might not have been able to meet all their needs, but we really hope for the better."

But he hopes future cohorts of disabled university students will have a more enabling environment.For Rashid Ssozi, no moment would be better than his graduation.

This Observer feature was prepared with support from the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (NUDIPU)

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