“Government should be intentional about helping students with disabilities to thrive along with their non-disabled mates”
Whether we like it or not, remote learning is now the new normal in the education sector across the world. It doesn’t matter whether Nigeria is still struggling with it or not. Even, in several other aspects of our lives, we are gradually getting used to doing things remotely. COVID-19 has thrown up challenges and technology has been deployed to tackle them. For example, some banks held their Annual General Meetings virtually in the midst of the total lockdown in most parts of Nigeria last week. The judiciary also sat remotely and gave a few judgements. I learnt the Institute of Chartered Secretaries had also proposed that virtual annual general meetings should be incorporated into the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA).
To show that remote operation is becoming popular, some companies are contemplating incorporating it to their system post-COVID-19. Such companies believe that working remotely will conserve man-hours wasted in traffic, especially in cities like Lagos; reduce expenses on diesel; data subscription; and so many other things.
Despite the fact that both the federal and state governments were initially confused as per their next line of action when they hurriedly closed schools to prevent the spread of coronavirus pandemic, they have also come out of their initial shock. Now, they are coming up with different alternatives to learning, never mind that none of these is proper online learning. At least, they are now doing something. Sadly, however, nothing much has been said so far in the area of providing learning alternatives for Students with Disabilities.
In fact, none of the commissioners of education at a zoom meeting organised by the Concerned Parents and Educators Initiative (CPE) last Sunday, spoke a word as regards their efforts at helping SWD to continue their learning like their non-disabled mates. It was as if special needs children were never part of the equation.
We know that many state governments are now using radio to teach. Lagos State government is even planning to buy 300,000 transistor radios to enable its indigent students to have access to its radio lessons. But what is the use of a transistor radio to a deaf and dumb pupil? Likewise, Ekiti State government has been reaching its students through the television but again how much of learning can blind students get through the television?
Is this an indirect way of saying that students with disabilities in Nigeria are not important? As it is, it is difficult to state the number of students with disabilities in the country due to the absence of data. The World Health Organisation has however said that of the one billion persons with disabilities worldwide, 150 million of them are children. Since Nigeria is home to thousands of special needs children, I think it is safe to assume that it would have its fair share of the global statistics. Should these children be left behind, more so when they are also Nigerians that should be enjoying the little attention being given to their mates across the country?
Government has to create real learning opportunities for students with special needs. I think part of Nigeria’s problem is the Federal Government’s decision to create special schools for SWD in 2004. We still have the school for the blind and the one for the deaf. The country is still in the era of segregation when others have long embraced inclusion. Unfortunately, this segregation policy is further stigmatising SWD by making them be more aware of their disabilities than their abilities. This idea of segregation is probably why governments at all levels are not including them in their plans.
Inclusive education is a core part of UNESCO’s fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG4) and the 2030 Education Agenda. It respects the needs of every child and discourages discrimination of any kind against children irrespective of their physical, mental, or emotional challenges. Lagos State claims to have 41 inclusive schools but I guess the state is probably practising integration, which of course, is better than segregation. At the same time, it is not enough to put SWD with non-disabled ones in the same class and describe this as inclusion. Inclusive education goes beyond this. From what we are seeing now, it is obvious that Lagos State needs to do more in terms of providing support for these children and taking care of their interests.
Agreed, creating alternative learning platforms for special needs children has its own peculiar challenges. For instance, e-learning platforms for physically-challenged students are not very common. Besides, most of the accessibility settings for online learning might not be useful for them, because they were not designed specifically for educational purposes. For example, graph charts and mathematical models may still not be correctly deciphered by a text-to-speech software setting, so it may not provide the correct output that a visually impaired student requires for understanding. Just as hearing-impaired students will not only need a visual aid, but they may also require special attention in terms of sign language instructors, hence the reason why a learning programme on the radio may not be useful to them.
These challenges notwithstanding, there are still some assistive technological items specially designed to help people with vision loss or other disabilities. The most important thing is for the government to have the political will to help these children if it does; I believe a lot could be achieved. After all, migrating online also poses its own challenges for non-disabled children and everyone is still trying to forge ahead regardless of the problems.
This is probably the best time for the Federal Government to formulate a national policy on inclusive education. Since COVID-19 is teaching us to do things differently, the government should also seize the opportunity of the pandemic to effect positive and lasting changes in its education sector. It should be intentional about helping students with disabilities to thrive along with their non-disabled mates. The government may have to train teachers and provide the needed resources to support inclusion education. But the investment is worth it. Meeting the learning needs of all categories of students is very important.
Olabisi Deji-Folutile is the editor-in-chief, franktalknow.com and member, Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org