Neema Namdamu, 42, grew up in the village of Bukavu in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo where children with disabilities were considered a curse.
As a child Namdamu contracted polio, leaving her paralysed from the waist down. Her neighbours advised her mother to do what they felt was the “right thing”: to leave the child alone in a hut until she died of starvation.
However, thanks to her mother who refused to give in to the community’s demand, Namdamu lived and went on to attend school and pursue her studies all the way to postgraduate level.
But, all through the years of her education, she struggled just to get to her classrooms.
“Not a single educational institute – be that school or college or university – had a disabled-friendly building. I cried while climbing the stairs every day,” recalls Nmadamu. She has since founded Mama Shuja – an NGO which gives vocational training including computer operating, data entry, digital storytelling, tailoring and handicrafts to young girls and women with disabilities living in eastern DRC’s conflict areas.
Nmadamu is attending the 3rd International Summit on Balanced and Inclusive Education currently being held in Djibouti City, Djibouti. Organised by the Education Relief Foundation (ERF), there are over 200 delegates and government representatives from over 35 countries currently in the Horn of Africa nation.
But the government representative from the DRC is absent. And Namadamu says that this reflects the overall lack of awareness about the importance of education in her country.
Making more learning institutions disability-friendly is key for inclusive education
Idriss Moumin is a passionate advocate of inclusiveness. As the President of the Association for People with Disabilities in Djibouti, and someone who lives with total visual impairment, he strongly wants all the disabled people in his country to be able to access education as their right.
Understanding the special needs and rights of people with disabilities is one of the issues discussed at the summit, but Moumin feels the level of understanding hasn’t matched his expectations.
“I have been hearing several speakers say phrases and terms like ‘we are doing this for them (disabled) and ‘normal people’’. I want to remind them, this is not about giving a handout, but providing (for those with disabilities) what is their right. And who are these normal people? Am I then an abnormal person?” asks Moumin.
- In Djibouti – a country of less than a million people, there are 10,500 people with various degrees of disabilities, according to an ongoing population survey. The complete data from the survey will be released only in February, but for now, it is assumed that there are about 600 students and about 300 are in the early years of school.
“Our main issues are accessibility, equipment and social acceptance. We lack transportation and roads and learning materials. We definitely need resources to fill these gaps. But, there is an equal need for providing these facilities as a right. For example, we should get jobs because we have our rights to employment, not because we need compassion,” Moumin tells IPS.
- According to the World Bank estimates, globally one billion people experience some form of disability. Of those, it is estimated that 93 to 150 million are children. According to Plan International, these children are 10 times less likely to go to school than other children.
- And when they do attend, it is likely to be in a segregated setting. Historically, children with disabilities have been excluded from the general education system and placed in ‘special schools’. In some cases, they are separated from their families and placed in long-term residential institutions where they are educated in isolation from the community if they are educated at all.
Investing in disabled-friendly schools in Niger
But, according to UNESCO, one of the biggest reasons why children with disabilities don’t access education, even if education policies are inclusive, is because of the lack of disabled-friendly school buildings and suitable learning materials.
- Niger is the largest country in West Africa. But according to the latest data published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), on average a person goes to school only for six years. As a result, Niger also has the lowest literacy rates in the world at 15.5 per cent — far behind the global rate of 92 per cent.
- Niger has an education index of .20. The education index is a statistic from the U.N. which is calculated using the mean number of years of schooling and the expected number of years of schooling. Its education index means that Niger is ranked at the bottom of all 189 countries with available data.
- Children with disabilities are also at increased risk of school violence and bullying, preventing the safe enjoyment of their right to education, says the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), School violence and bullying: Global status report, 2016.
However, despite political conflicts and extreme poverty, several organisations are working to improve education in Niger. One such organisation is Remember Niger Coalition (RNC) – an American charity that has stepped in to help children with disabilities attend school.
In 2019, the RNC partnered with the Maradi Association for People with Disabilities and the Hosanna Institute to establish the School of Hope, a school specifically designed for children with disabilities. The three-classroom building was completed in November 2019 with one class ready for use in October when the school year began with 20 kindergarten students.
According to Julie Frye, director of marketing and communications at RNC, this is the first phase in establishing a primary through high school complex for all children, including students with learning differences and unique needs. When complete, the school will have classes from kindergarten all the way to high school for over 600 students.
The design of the School of Hope classrooms takes into consideration issues of accessibility and barrier-free spaces such as handrails, wide doorways, and access ramps. Construction included the installation of four accessible toilets and hand-washing stations, customised to meet the special needs of the disabled community.
“School infrastructure is pivotal to our mission to create quality educational opportunities in Niger. In order for quality learning to take place, students and teachers must have facilities that are safe and adapted to their needs,” Frye tells IPS. The RNC has invested a total of $50,000 so far, she reveals.
DRC: Education curbs violent crimes against the disabled
In DRC, especially in Bukavu and other eastern towns and villages, there remain significantly high levels of violence against women and girls, who are often beaten, raped and tortured. Those who are disabled cannot run away, making them more vulnerable.
The solution, Namadamu says, lies in education for the disabled and joint financing by the government and private sector funders.
“If we invest $1 million, we can build a large school, hostels, toilets, vocational skill training, special learning materials for the blind and other technologies like computer, TV camera etc. Such a facility can provide total, inclusive education to a large community. But where is that money? We need external investment,” says Namadamu.
Sheikh Manssour Bin Mussallam, the president of ERF, says that though there is space for private investors in inclusive education, it needs to happen in a more collective and cohesive way. It should not be fragmented but confederated.
“Regardless of whether its private sectors or philanthropists or academic bodies, we need to act through coordination. The main issue or tragedy is that where there is regional lack of initiatives, organisations or individuals, they do not communicate. When they do communicate, they do not cooperate. And when they do cooperate, it’s not very efficient,” Mussallam tells IPS in a special interview.