When Clement Chiwaya, former Member of Parliament for Mangochi Central Constituency, announced his desire to compete in the UDF primary elections in 2004, many people might have doubted whether he would make it, considering the fact that he is physically impaired. But the optimistic Chiwaya defied all odds by winning in the primary elections and later got elected into the National Assembly as an MP for the constituency.
“A person with a disability is anyone with a restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity that is considered normal,” says the Encyclopedia Britannica.
In Malawi, it appears to some extent, people with disabilities are not readily accepted as individuals who can deliver in different sectors. Yet no one can justify this misconception. Above all, no one can justify removing people with disabilities from regular and normal life situations because their rights are not different from those without them.
Many people with disabilities have shown that they can deliver just like the able-bodied if they are given an opportunity. Chiwaya later became Minister responsible for persons with disabilities and the elderly and he delivered. In fact, there are many other people with disabilities who deliver in different capacities.
There are many people with different kinds of disabilities who do not have access to education, specifically Special Needs Education (SNE). Yet this kind of education is considered as a universal right to education for the disabled.
Several initiatives have been established on how people with disabilities can have the same access to education as the able-bodied ones. One of the initiatives is the 1993 Equalization of Opportunity for Persons with Disabilities. Another statement and framework for action on Special Needs Education was drawn by UNESCO in Salamanca, Spain, in 1994.
“Special Needs Education is universal because educated people are equally empowered without any discrimination, a thing that connects it to the general human rights of everyone,” observes a technician in the special needs section at Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi.
“One thing that has to be considered is that in terms of education, a child with a disability has exceptional needs and consideration to balance the playing field. His/her education is differentiated from general regular education by its curriculum because some children with disabilities require systematic instruction, special equipment and other things depending on the intensity and or kind of disability,” he adds.
Special Needs Education can sometimes be identified in terms of where it takes place. Depending on the disability, some children cannot be taught in regular classrooms with their peers who do not have them. But the question is: is government doing enough to make sure Special Needs Education is a universal right to education for every citizen with a disability regardless of the kind of impairment or not?
When we look at the history of Special Needs Education in Malawi, we will find that the country was one of the first in Africa to train teachers in special needs.
“Montfort College of Teacher Training and Special Needs Education Centre was founded by Catholic Brothers (Dutch missionaries) in 1950s. With the special focus on the most vulnerable pupils, the requirement on Special Needs Education became apparent. This was the starting point of a teacher training program within SNE,” reads a research paper published by the centre for education research and training of Chancellor College.
For many years now, Montfort has trained specialist teachers from Malawi and other African countries including Botswana, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa and many more. Yet, Malawi itself seems to suffer when the delivery of Special Needs Education is concerned.
There appears to be no development as along as SNE is concerned. At the otherwise popular Montfort, the special needs training section does not even have its own structures but interchanges with the regular teachers training college’s structures.
Figures from a 2004 survey carried out by the teachers of the deaf in Malawi suggest that there are likely to be around more than 7,000 deaf children this year who are unable to access education; some because they can not travel to a school for the deaf due to the distances and the costs; many because they can not pay the costs of food, lodging and travel; many because there is no room in the Schools for the Deaf; and many because they can not access education in mainstream classes.
Officials from the deaf community in the country disclosed that currently, estimates show that Malawi has over 50,000 hearing impaired people against not more than eleven sign language interpreters. The country is facing a lot of challenges in diverse areas more especially as they want to access communal or any other fundamental services.
“These sign language interpreters are also generally located in the South of the country, so it is hard to get one in the North. There are no professional services therefore, interpreters tend to do their training and leave. There was no certification for qualified interpreters by 2004 which impacted on the salary this profession attracted. It is very low so interpreters have to have a second job,” reads part of a document on special needs education in Malawi which was published in 2006.
People with disabilities are entitled to the equal rights as anybody else. But because of lack of resources, they are habitually more susceptible to the effects of poverty. They are frequently treated as ‘different’, less important or as not having the same rights and needs as other people.
In many cases, misapprehension and prejudice can be a bigger barrier to people with disabilities than their disability itself. A national policy paper on Equalization of Opportunities for persons with disabilities was ratified by the Malawi Cabinet in November 2005. The aim of the policy was to integrate fully persons with disabilities in all aspects of life, thereby equalise their opportunities in order to enhance their dignity and well being, so that they have the essentials of life, among other aims. Concerning education, the policy tackled the issue of equal access and inclusion of persons with disabilities in education and training programmes.
In the document Policy Investment Framework (PIF) 2001, the Ministry of Education addressed the necessity to reinforce the support system of SNE. With the strong political will from the government, the SNE Unit was upgraded into a Department in 2005.
The upgrading of the unit was one step to implement the Policy Investment Framework and the National policy on the equalization of opportunities of the persons with Disabilities. The department was employing staff to cover different areas of disabilities such as visual impairments, hearing impairments and learning difficulties.
In schools, children with physical impairments bank on their friends to have access to classes that have steps. If their colleagues decide not to assist them, then they do not have access to classes, and eventually miss lessons. Some of our young men and women are denied access to institutions of higher learning because university campuses appear to have been designed for students without disabilities only. Most institutions were constructed devoid of considering those with impairments. Many people with disabilities are frustrated, and they stay away from school. This results in most of them being the poorest of the poor.
“People with disabilities need to be empowered, and the best way to empower them is through education. Once they are educated they will support themselves and their families. They should have equal access to education just like anyone else. Let them do small-scale businesses and their lives will change forever,” says Amon Nyirenda, a third year student at Chancellor College.
Imagine what would happen if the majority of people in the world had disabilities. They would have every need at their disposal including special needs education. Just as an able-bodied child needs a pen and a copybook as writing materials, so will a blind child need Braille material for writing. Just like an able-bodied individual cannot go into a house that does not have doors, so will a physically disabled individual fail to climb stairs.
Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi has more than 5 visually impaired students, yet the college does not have an established section where these students can learn. They have to learn together with regular students, a thing that becomes very problematic to them.
The most pathetic thing about Special Needs Education in Malawi is that despite the fact that Malawi was one of the first countries in Africa to train specialist teachers, there is no training centre that is fully established so that it may offer higher qualifications in special needs.
Government can do something so that Special Needs Education is considered ‘really’ as a universal right to education for people with disabilities. Otherwise, no one can justify that people with disabilities do not need to have access to education.
Some form of disabilities will need assistive learning devices and this is the duty of the government to ensure that the devices are readily available. To date, 45 years after independence, it is ridiculous to imagine how a country of 13 million people with more than 50, 000 deaf people can only have about fourteen interpreters for sign language.