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Growing Number of Special Needs Learners Remain Classroom Tourists Amid Device Shortages, Policy Delays :: Uganda Radionetwork

Growing Number of Special Needs Learners Remain Classroom Tourists Amid Device Shortages, Policy Delays

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Esther Kyozira, the Chief Executive Officer of the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (NUDIP), said although more learners are in classrooms, it has been established that their presence in school is more about passing time rather than gaining the education necessary to unlock their full potential.
28 Sep 2023 08:55
Special needs learners arrive at symposium expects says these learners are excluded due to device shortages, teacher shortage, and policy delays

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Uganda has witnessed a significant surge in the enrollment of special needs children within its school system in recent years. However, schools are struggling to adequately address the unique learning requirements of these learners, leaving them feeling like tourists in their own classrooms.

Esther Kyozira, the Chief Executive Officer of the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (NUDIP), said although more learners are in classrooms, it has been established that their presence in school is more about passing time rather than gaining the education necessary to unlock their full potential.

"The past was marked by a troubling practice where parents would often lock away their children with special needs, denying them their fundamental right to education," Kyozira said speaking at the 3rd National Special Needs Education Symposium which is centered around the theme of "Ensuring Inclusive Education: From Theory to Practice."

She added, "But now, with parents increasingly recognizing the importance of sending these children to school, it's disheartening to see that many of them are still not receiving the education they deserve. It's almost as if we've moved them from one confined environment at home to another, with the same lack of meaningful learning opportunities.”

Kyozira added that the majority lack assistive devices, which excludes many children with different forms of disabilities from school with many left with no option other than dropping out.

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Assistive devices play a crucial role in bridging the gap between the abilities of special needs learners and the demands of the classroom. These devices, which include speech-generators, communication apps, hearing aids, and Brailles, empower students to actively participate in their education.

Sarah Ayesiga, the Assistant Commissioner in charge of Inclusive and Non-Formal Education in the Ministry of Education, acknowledged the significant challenges surrounding the availability of assistive devices for special needs learners. She pointed out that many of these devices come with a hefty price tag, making them unaffordable for most parents. For instance, hearing aids alone can cost as much as 3 million Ugandan shillings.

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However, Ayesiga noted the funding constraints faced by the ministry, saying that the Special Needs Education department receives relatively minimal funding. Despite some increased attention and funding with the arrival of Janet Museveni as the Minister responsible for the sector, the resources are still insufficient to address the pressing needs adequately.

Ayesiga further explained that, with the limited resources available, the ministry has made efforts to procure some devices for learners. However, she also described the frustrating dilemma they often find themselves in. For instance, in the case of blind learners, they may be provided with Braille machines, but other necessary supplementary items might be unavailable, rendering their efforts less effective.

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Ismael Mulindwa, the Director of Basic Education, said the ministry is dedicated to addressing challenges for special needs learners. He adds that they have started a study to determine the cost of educating one special needs learner, considering different disabilities. This study helps understand unique needs and costs, enabling tailored interventions and resource allocation for quality education.

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Compulsory Special Needs Training for All Teachers

Another significant challenge that has been looming is the shortage of teachers equipped to handle special needs learners. Mulindwa highlighted a promising reform in teacher education aimed at addressing this issue. he said the ministry plans to implement mandatory modules on handling special learners in all teacher training institutions.

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This move represents a crucial step towards ensuring that future educators are adequately prepared to work with special needs students. While these modules had already been incorporated into the curriculum for primary school teachers and at national teacher colleges under the government's oversight through Kyambogo University, teachers at other levels, trained by different institutions, were lacking this essential competency.

Kyozira welcomed this development, emphasizing the importance of preparing special needs teachers for the challenges of inclusive education. She added special needs teachers are primarily associated with special schools but as inclusive education becomes more prevalent and special needs students increasingly enroll in mainstream schools, it has become imperative to equip teachers with the necessary skills to support these students effectively.

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Inclusion Misunderstood as Policy Delays for 13 Years

Kyozira highlighted the increasing number of schools that have opened their doors to special needs learners due to the growing emphasis on inclusive education. However, she also emphasized that the term "inclusive education" had been somewhat misunderstood and misused by many, who often limited it to the physical aspect of accessibility, such as installing ramps and allowing special needs learners to study alongside their peers.

Kyozira noted that inclusive education goes beyond the practice of having special needs learners study in the same classrooms as neurotypical learners. She placed the blame for this misunderstanding on the prolonged delay in the development of an inclusive education policy by the government, which has been ongoing for the last 13 years.

"The policy was intended to articulate a comprehensive understanding of inclusive education and delineate its crucial elements. It aimed to clarify the roles and responsibilities expected of different stakeholders, including parents, educators, institutions, and assessment bodies. Yet, for years, the ministry has grappled with its completion, a delay that has significant implications," she added.

Around 2010, the government began developing special needs and informal education policies, but funding issues halted progress. Later, due to advocacy and stakeholder pressure, these policies were merged into the inclusive education policy. However, despite promises, the government has not yet issued this policy, causing anticipation among many who hope it will address pressing issues in special needs education and inclusive practices.

Mulindwa provided a positive update on the status of the policy, stating that the Ministry had recently received a certificate of financial implication for the inclusive education policy. h added that this development signifies that the policy is now ready for presentation at the cabinet level, where it is expected to be deliberated upon and passed.

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Assistant Commissioner Sarah Ayesiga, is optimistic about the policy and sees it as a potential game-changer for inclusive education. She points out that a key focus of the policy is improving the teaching and assessment of special needs learners, an issue that has persisted for a long time. Sarah believes that these learners have been unfairly assessed using the same criteria as "normal" learners by assessment bodies.

In Uganda, around 2.5 million children live with various forms of disabilities, as per a 2014 UNICEF assessment. These disabilities encompass conditions like muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Down syndrome, autism, dyslexia, processing disorders, bipolar disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, blindness, visual impairment, and deafness, among others.

For education, children with special needs in Uganda can attend three types of schools: special schools, units integrated into mainstream schools, and all-inclusive schools that accommodate both disabled and non-disabled children. There are currently 17 special schools, 84 integrated units, and 27 all-inclusive primary schools. At the secondary level, there are five special schools, 10 integrated units within mainstream schools, and 26 all-inclusive schools.

Although Uganda has set an ambitious goal of achieving universal access to basic education in Sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank has noted that children with disabilities in the country have not fully benefited from these efforts. They still encounter obstacles in accessing education, healthcare, and employment, which hinders them from realizing their full potential.