How we treat our physically disabled students matters

Students play para-volleyball during Special Secondary Schools National Term Two ball games at Maseno School

Students play para-volleyball during Special Secondary Schools National Term Two ball games at Maseno School on July 31, 2018. Physically disabled students face many challenges in secondary schools. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Kenyans are very good at coming up with ideas that would make the country one of the most inclusive, just and better societies to live in.

Kenyans produced a constitution that promised everyone all manner of freedoms, services and rights. Kenyans speak proudly of that constitution, which, though, they are thinking of rejigging to meet new needs.

One of the features of the new Constitution is its emphasis on inclusivity, acknowledging that many people in Kenya have been marginalised in the past and still face discrimination, simply because they are disabled, are a minority or are from a particular region.

Physically disabled school-going children are among Kenyans who suffer discrimination that further limits their capacity to be included in everyday life. Yet, not many ordinary people are aware of the difficulties that such young people experience; not even their parents, relatives, schoolmates or the teachers who are supposed to take care of them every day.

In his book, Is Inclusion Working for Physically Disabled Students (Utafiti Foundation, 2022), Phitalis Were Masakhwe reminds the reader of this big problem that is hiding in plain sight.

What policies is the government implementing to ensure that physically disabled learners are included in mainstream education programs instead of being alienated in special schools?

What learning teaching and learning practices have schools adopted to guarantee the integration and inclusion of learners? How can the curriculum be adapted to the special needs that a learner in an integrated system might have?

Masakhwe identifies a number of problems that physically disabled learners face in the school system in Kenya. The foremost is teachers’ perceived lack of competence.

He notes that teacher trainees are not necessarily prepared to teach an integrated class. So, when such a teacher meets a learner with what may be perceived as ‘special needs’, the teacher will find it difficult or will be reluctant to adjust their instructional methodologies to fully address the needs of the entire class. Just too many teachers teaching in secondary schools won’t know what to do if they were to find a learner with a physical disability in class.

The most disabling of the challenges that physically disabled learners in secondary schools face are ‘attitudinal barriers.’ When a child has a congenital physical disability, for instance, some cultures take it as a curse or punishment to the parents or even the child. Consequently, many such children are hidden at home and rarely attend elementary school.

The attitudes of teachers and fellow students may be a big hindrance to learning for those who get admitted to secondary school. Masakhwe argues that research shows that even though such students may be cared for by teachers, parents and fellow students, it is generally assumed that they don’t have the capacity to learn and need not pass exams.

Violence, bullying

Physically disabled students face violence and bullying from fellow students just because they are disabled. When a learner knows that they are likely to be bullied by their colleagues, they end up with ‘feelings of vulnerability.’ These two factors are a big disincentive for learners with physical disabilities and contribute to the feeling that learners with a disability should study in special schools.

The cover of the book Is Inclusion Working for Physically Disabled Students (Utafiti Foundation, 2022) by Phitalis Were Masakhwe

The cover of the book Is Inclusion Working for Physically Disabled Students (Utafiti Foundation, 2022) by Phitalis Were Masakhwe.

Photo credit: Pool

Schools in Kenya hardly have the physical infrastructure to aid persons living with disability to integrate. This is one of the most intractable problems in the country, as it affects many other public institutions. Very few schools, churches, and government offices, among other public (and private) places in this country have toilets, lifts, ramps, walkways, audio-visual facilities etc that would support inclusivity for the physically disabled.

It is a nightmare for many wheelchair users to board a school bus. They have to be carried onto and off it. Going to the toilet is even scarier. Moving from one class to the next, working in the laboratory and participating in sports are some of the challenges that make integration and inclusion in secondary school education a tough task for the physically disabled, according to Masakhwe in Is Inclusion Working for Physically Disabled Students.

The problems that learners with physical disabilities face in secondary schools are just too many. Yet research shows that integration and inclusion is the best way to prepare these learners for the world beyond school and work. Inclusion means that such learners are able to test themselves against their abled classmates. By interacting with their colleagues, they are socialised and cultured into the workings of society as full citizens of that particular society.

Is the government preparing curricula, conditions and teachers who are ready to be inclusive in their classrooms? Is the competency-based curriculum (CBC) prepared to integrate and include learners with physical disabilities into the school system?

Will there be more children with disabilities (CwDs) admitted to secondary schools instead of being sent to special schools? Will teachers in the new system be better trained; or, are they actually being trained to be prepared for a more integrated and inclusive curriculum? What about the government committing more resources to schools that admit learners with physical disabilities in order to help them build user-friendly facilities?

Yet, the most enduring problem in the education of children with physical disabilities is socio-cultural. Home and not necessarily school, is where the problem begins. Some parents see a disabled child as a ‘problem’ and not someone living with a disability. Such parents have probably been socialised to think so.

In some cases, these parents don’t seek medical services, instead resorting to medicine men and diviners, who tend to ‘confirm’ their beliefs that there is indeed something wrong with the child. Considering that school teachers and administrators come from the same communities in which the parents of the disabled children were raised, it isn’t surprising that some of the teachers also see the CwD as unable to learn and probably a waste of time and resources.

In the end, CwDs are neglected or victimised or simply discouraged from learning. Thus, integration and inclusion of CwDs has to start right in the community.

The writer teaches literature, performing arts and media at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]