In the seventh part of The Observer/Nudipu series on Uganda's disability policy environment, Shifa Mwesigye finds that while inclusive education is an ideal, it is becoming too expensive even for those who dare.
For some reason, this school instantly strikes you as different. On a merry-go-round, a toddler pushes a drowsy-looking playmate who throws his hands up to feel the air brushing off his face. Another boy, perhaps 12 years old, is walking to the play shade - with palpable difficulty. Other boys and girls show no such difficulty as their mentally and physically disabled mates, running around the place to create a lively chuckle of a normal school.
Welcome to Hill Preparatory School (HPS) in Kampala's posh suburb of Naguru. The boy with hands up in the air has Down Syndrome. There are more children with autism, dyslexia and physical disability. But these children with disabilities (CWDs) happily interact and play with "regular" or able-bodied children.
This is one of Uganda's model primary schools on inclusive education. Its mission is: "To provide an integrated learning environment, where children with learning disabilities are educated alongside their regular counterparts for mutual benefit."
The head teacher, Ambrose Lukusa Kibuuka, says HPS has been providing inclusive education for the last 25 years.
"We believe that each child will benefit from such kind of setting. Classes have small numbers of 20 children where with every four regular children, we have a special-needs child," Kibuuka says.
Hence each child receives due attention, with special-needs youngsters learning a lot from the regular ones. The latter also learn the patience of dealing with people. By the end of 2012, HPS had 105 children, including 40 with special needs. Some are mentally challenged; others have speech and learning disabilities, physical disabilities, hearing problems, among others.
The school has facilities like ramps and trained teachers in handling CWDs. It has learning-stimulating amenities, a swimming pool, computers, pictograms, flash cards and vocational training equipment like sewing machines.
"Each child in our setting is handled as an individual. We take each child at their pace and at the end of the day no child loses, " Kibuuka says.
It may seem like when Ms Clare Wavamunno was starting HPS in 1988, she was reading from the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Her school conforms to standards provided for in the UNCRPD.
The convention obliges governments to recognise the right of PWDs to education without any discrimination.
"[Ensure that] PWDs are not excluded from free and compulsory primary or secondary education, on the basis of disability. PWDs shall be enabled to learn life and develop social skills using Braille, alternative script, sign language and linguistic identity for the deaf community," Article 24 of the UNCRPD states.
The convention recommends that states employ teachers, including teachers with disabilities, who are qualified in sign language or Braille. These recommendations are catered for in Uganda's policy on Special Needs and Inclusive Education (SNIE) which was launched in 2011 by Jessica Alupo, the minister for Education and Sports.
When the SNIE policy was passed in 2011, HPS was used as an example of what inclusive education means. This school receives visitors who want to learn how children are integrated, how they are taught in one class what learning material and infrastructure they use and how they manage to make their pupils pass. In 2011, of the eight pupils who sat for PLE, six passed in grade I.
Ms Wavamunno's feat is rare. The government is not even halfway through implementing recommendations in their UPE and SNIE policies and the UNCRDP which Uganda ratified. The UPE policy says priority should be given to a child with disability; they should be mobilised and given first admission. By 2010, enrolment of CWDs in school was 150,559 of whom 82,537 were male and 68,022 female.
School of choice
The SNIE policy states that CWDs can go to any school they want. This is in line with the UNCRPD's recommendations of promoting inclusive education as a strategy to disability mainstreaming. Educating a disabled person will benefit them, their parents, community and the country by empowering them with knowledge and skills to work and sustain themselves rather than depend on others. So, the government should have a selfish interest in this process.
But according to Esther Kyozira, a programme manager at National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (Nudipu), there has been no concerted effort to implement the above policies.
"Whereas they say that they are promoting inclusive education, children with disabilities are denied access to school, [saying] that their disability is severe and they cannot be managed," Kyozira says. "When you look at it, they are right; if a school does not have a teacher, who will teach a deaf? So, we wonder where the inclusion is."
Yet according to the UNCRDP, states must ensure education for the blind and deaf or deaf- blind, is delivered in the most appropriate languages and communication for the individual. Kibuuka says the problem also starts right at home where parents don't take their disabled children to school. He says parents also stigmatise CWDs.
"Do you know if I offered free places for a regular child in this school, I may not get ten people to come? Stigma is very deeply rooted in society. Parents come here and they like the school but they don't come back because they do not like their children to be associated with special-needs children," Kibuuka says, almost angry.
Yet the convention obliges states parties to ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning.
"This is directed to the full development of human potential, sense of dignity and self-worth, their personality, talents and creativity, as well as their mental and physical abilities," the convention states in section one of Article 24.
Kyozira says if the government invested in training more teachers and building physical infrastructure, there would be no need to have special-needs schools because the convention does not advocate for it. Uganda has special-needs schools like Uganda School for the Deaf, Salama School for the Blind, St Francis School for the Blind Madera, Kampala School of the Physically Handicapped.
According to the convention, putting PWDS in 'special' schools isolates them and forestalls integration with the wider society.
"We want to see government allocating enough resources towards the purchase of equipment, training of professionals and awareness of the parents and the public about the right to education of children with disabilities," Kyozira says.
It is a point that Negris Onen, the Assistant Commissioner for Inclusive Education and Non-formal Education, concedes. But he also points at positives.
He says special needs was a small section in the ministry of Education, which was made a department in the 90s, with a recurrent budget of about Shs 1.2 billion. But Onen says the only development budget comes in from the crosscutting departments like the primary, secondary or higher education. For example, the Basic Education department has a budget line of about Shs 1 billion for the special needs.
This is used for procuring instruction material and assistive devices like Braille kits, wheeledchairs, magnifying glasses, white cane, sign language dictionaries and manuals. Onen says nearly every school in Uganda has CWDs while over 100 schools are using the inclusive education model. These schools are provided with subvention grants of Shs 15,000 per child.
"We are training teachers, buying instructional material and improving the infrastructure. It is a challenge we have today in implementing the policy because we are still inadequate," Onen says, adding "The ministry has taken into account all these things. Our construction plan in the ministry states that any school constructing today must include ramps," Onen says.
Back at HPS, Kibuuka reiterates the ideals behind the school. But he says the school is very expensive to provide and maintain. Starting this year, they are changing the learning system; children with special needs will have their own centre and regular children continue in their own classes - although in the same school with a difference.
This Observer feature was prepared with support from the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (Nudipu).