Disabled Africans cheered a new hero last month when South Africa’s wheelchair tennis powerhouse Lucas Sithole defeated world No. 1 quadriplegic tennis player David Wagner of the United States at a Johannesburg tournament — demonstrating that in Africa, as elsewhere, physical disability is no bar to world greatness.
But the sad truth for many disabled young Africans is that the barriers to development start much closer to home, beginning in schools that do little to serve students with special needs. Deprived of education, these young people are at a disadvantage for life and often end up among the poorest of the poor.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Simple changes in teaching techniques, coupled with new, locally produced teaching materials and improved school design, can open the doors of education to all students regardless of physical disability. But African governments and international donors need to make this a priority, or risk leaving generations of disabled Africans behind.
Of the estimated 500 million persons with disabilities worldwide, 120 million to 150 million are children. Eighty percent of these children live in lower to lower-middle-income countries. Furthermore, recent research indicates that this number of disabled children is growing due to increasing poverty, armed conflict, poor child labor practices, violence and HIV and AIDS.
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In the developing world, many disabled people drop out of school and pay the economic consequences for life. In Bangladesh, reductions in wage earnings attributed to lower levels of education among people with disabilities and their child caregivers were estimated to cost the economy $54 million per year. In Morocco, lost income due to exclusion from work was estimated to result in national level losses of 9.2 billion dirhams ($1.1 billion).
In Uganda, where I work, the number of people officially classified as disabled has been steadily rising from 4 percent in 2002 to 16 percent in 2011. Whether this rise is due to improved statistical data or to people incurring new disabilities is unclear, but what is clear is that this population — roughly 6 million people — is poorly served by public programs and particularly by schools.
Many Ugandan schools feature only the most basic amenities, and do not have ramps or wide doorways that could enable a student in a wheelchair to get to class, while in the classroom desks are not configured to accommodate wheelchair users. School latrines, libraries and playgrounds are also usually inaccessible.
School instruction is also a formidable barrier. In Uganda, as in many African countries, the student teacher ratio is high, at almost 50 to 1. Teachers lecture from the head of the class and use a blackboard — no matter whether some students may have vision or hearing problems, or physical problems copying notes.
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Unsurprisingly, the available statistical information indicates an extremely low enrollment and completion rate of primary and secondary schools by children with disabilities. As few as 9 percent of children with disabilities of school age attend primary school, compared with a national average of 92 percent, and only 6 percent of these continue studying in secondary schools, according to a 2014 report by Uganda’s Ministry of Gender and Social Development.
Pilot programs have shown that there is a better way. At my organization, the Youth with Physical Disability Development Forum, we have pioneered new, locally produced teaching materials that can help. A simple abacus, constructed out of poles set into a plywood box with rubber rings for counters, can bring basic math alive for students who cannot use a pen. A large card embossed with basic geometric shapes can help students with vision problems understand spatial relationships.
Basic teacher training can also help. In our partner schools we are working with 60 individual teachers to explain the best ways to reach their students with disabilities. This has resulted in more one-on-one attention for these students, and has seen the dropout rate for students with disabilities fall by almost half.
This can make a real difference. In this year’s national examinations for children in primary school, 85 of the 135 students with special needs in our partner schools passed with top honors and the rest passed with secondary honors. These are students who now have the chance to continue their education and to realize their full potential. With a little work, we could guarantee that all disabled students in Uganda, and across Africa, share the same possibility.
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