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Manpower shortage, inadequate schools mean disabled children lack access to education they deserve

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Photo credit: Hope Fountain School for the Deaf during a performance

By Abiose Adelaja-Adams

Ajoke, a 30- year-old housewife believed her two year-old daughter, Titi, was the most stubborn of all pupils in her school. She usually called her name thrice before she answers. And when she did, it was often because she (Ajoke) had threatened with her fingers to beat her.

One day Titi went home with a bleeding nose. Ajoke rushed to the school, only to be told by her daughter’s teacher that every pupil had been warned not to step out but Titi was too headstrong.

That was when she started paying attention to Titi. She took the young girl to the hospital and was referred to the ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) specialist at General Hospital Marina, Lagos. After a series of tests, Titi was diagnosed of partial deafness.

Broken by the news, Ajoke sought to rationalise her situation. ‘’I don’t know where she got it. I googled how people become deaf and they say it is caused by heredity or some kind of sickness during pregnancy,” she says, sliding fingers on her white Infinix Zero phone. ‘’I was not sick when she was in my womb, so I don’t know.

“The doctor said we should do a surgery to assist her to hear a bit, but we don’t have the money. All the money contributed by my extended family is not enough. My husband’s family say we should take her for miracle because it is spiritual attack.”

Ajoke, left with no choice, took Titi to grandma’s place since the school’s proprietress also advised them to take her to a special school as she cannot learn properly in a general school.

“I took her to my mum’s place. I was too shocked to initially think rationale.  I am also taking her for prayers, hoping she will hear because I don’t have the money for operation at the hospital.”

The most recent National Survey on Hearing Impairment and Deafness in Nigeria shows that about 3.5 million children within the age of 0 to 15 years are affected with Disabling Hearing Impairment, (DHI). Experts say lack of university training programme for clinical audiologists, unequipped audiological centres and lack of speech therapists in the country fuels the incidence.

However, though such children have right to be educated, society appears to be failing them.

Titi is five years now and has been out of school for two years and probably gone completely deaf.

“I live at Agbado. There is no school for the deaf. The only one is at Surulere and it is not for children of Titi’s age. Out of all the schools around me here, no one can meet her need,” Ajoke laments.

Dr Adebukola Adebayo, a board member of the Lagos State Office for Disability Affairs, says the state government has a policy on inclusive education for persons living with disability and as a result, there are 40 schools in the State which has inclusive education for persons with disability at present.

“Persons with disability have a right to be educated. Before now, there are only five special primary schools in the State. We discovered that those special schools were a contributory factor to discrimination and exclusiveness. But if a child with disability wears the same uniform and stands on the same assembly ground with other children, we are breaking the barrier,” he explains. “The only thing we need to do is to know their disability. For example, for the deaf child, you provide a sign language interpreter and for a blind child, you provide learning tools like the braille.”

Notably, Article 28, subsection (1) of the Lagos State Disability Law states thus: “Every child living with disability has an unfettered rights to education without discrimination or segregation in any form.”

But what do we see? A high dropout rate of such children is very apparent.

A 2016 UNICEF report shows that 10.5 million children are out of school. Of these number, a huge population drop out due to their disability.

Dr. Adebayo, who is also the Lagos State secretary for Joint Association of Persons with Disability, further explains thus, “the WHO estimates there are 15.5 million Nigerians living with one form of disability or another. Out of these number each state has about 200,000. Of these, only 20,000 are educated. What happens to the remaining 180,000 in each states?”

Fear of Stigma

Not only are such children force to drop out of school, they are hidden due to stigma. Yet article 26, section 6, of same law says; “No child shall be concealed, abandoned or neglected on basis of disability.”

But Titi’s parents have hidden her because they are ashamed to have a deaf child. Others are either in the streets begging or are used for begging.

An overview of the same Article 28, subsection (3) further reads; “All schools whether pre-primary, primary, secondary or tertiary shall be run in a manner that is accessible to persons with disability and should have trained personnel to cater for the needs of such persons.”

But there remains a wide gap, which this six year-old law still has to cover. For instance, the manpower to cater to the needs of persons with disability is not adequate in these 40 schools with inclusive education. For instance, it is evident in such schools there is no sign language to even guide the children.

“In Nigeria there are only seven tertiary institutions providing courses on Special Education. In Lagos it is only Ijanikin and Michael Otedola College of Special Education, that are providing this training,” Dr. Adebayo says.

Ms. Queendalyne Isuambuk, a Sign Language Interpreter and graduate in Special Education at the University of Ibadan, agrees that the personnel is very low compared to the much needed intervention in many private schools.

“I teach at Santa Maria Montessori school, Surulere, Lagos and I can tell you that there are children requiring special needs. But if you don’t have the training, you can’t help them,’’ she said. ‘’Most of the teachers are not trained in Special Education, so you can see a teacher beating a child for not catching up fast. It’s because the child may have a learning disability. But if they are not trained to recognize this, they can’t know and the child is frustrated.

Dr. Adebayo adds: “The shortage of manpower is a sign that for a long time persons with disability have been excluded, but we are breaking the barrier slowly.”

Ms. Treasure Uchegbu, director of Hope Fountain School for the Deaf, Lagos says, communication is key and needed in private schools.

She said: “We cannot neglect this population. If we do, they pose a risk to the larger population. I got into learning sign language because I met a deaf adolescent who is HIV positive. How do you communicate with such? So, right now, I am advocating that schools should adopt sign language and make provision for people with other forms of disability.

“Persons with disability are an integral part of society. Ignoring 25 million people will dent whatever image the country may be trying to portray.”

As it is now, even if Titi is to be returned to school, none of these 40 schools are near her. How she will transit from Agbado to Surulere, in search of education, on a daily basis, for a five year-old, presents a vivid image of the lack of accessibility of these schools to those who need their services.