Breaking barriers to inclusive education in Uganda

sightsavers_logoThe Young Ambassadors for the Global Campaign for Education have returned from Uganda, having witnessed first-hand the barriers to education for children with disabilities.

The trip was for the Send All My Friends to School campaign, which aims to raise awareness of the need to provide every child with a primary education by the year 2015.

This was one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that world leaders agreed on back in 2000. While some progress has been made, there are still 57 million children worldwide who are missing out on school, more than one third of whom have a disability.

While in Uganda, the two ambassadors, Maisie Le Masurier (14) and Rebecca Unwin (15), met a number of children who have been denied the opportunity to go to school because of their disabilities. A visit to the rural Iganga district allowed the Young Ambassadors to hear about the impact a lack of education has on individual children and their families.

After meeting 16-year-old Martha, Maisie said:

“It was hard to listen to Martha telling us that she sometimes gets laughed at, as her sight problems mean that she can stumble around, trying to find her way. She is desperate to go to school, constantly thinking of the colossal improvement it would make to her future. She hasn’t lost her ambition though, telling us: “If given hope, I can become a teacher or a lawyer. I need to go back to school to do this.” We were thrilled to give Martha a Braille slate so that she could learn at home and not be too far behind if she does get to go to an inclusive school. She was delighted and clearly eager to get started”.

They also met 17-year-old Hamza, who is blind, along with his father who struggles to support the family as a result of his own blindness. Hamza’s family can’t afford the fees for a school that is equipped for visually impaired children.

Hamza told Maisie and Rebecca how lonely he was as all his friends head off to school. He sits on the same chair all day, every day, hoping that one morning he’ll wake and be told he can go to school too. “I do nothing apart from sitting here,” he said. “I wake up in the morning and sit. I only think about one thing – that I will wake up and be back in school.”

The Young Ambassadors learnt about the main obstacles to inclusive education including a lack of qualified teachers, a lack of equipment and negative attitudes towards people with disabilities. They also visited two schools that are part of the Uganda Inclusive Education Programme which is beginning to break down the barriers.

They met children with disabilities who are regularly attending school and heard from them and their teachers about their experiences of inclusive education and the difference it makes to their lives.

Justin, a visually impaired teacher at Iganga secondary school, said: “I wish all blind people would be given the chance to go to school. They now live like any other sighted person. With education you can fit into society. Through Braille you can know everything in the world.”

The Uganda Inclusive Education programme aims to increase enrolment of visually impaired students in Uganda by 25 per cent by 2016. Sightsavers supports the programme by supplying equipment, assistive devices and Braille machines, as well as specialised training for teachers. The programme proves that visually impaired children can thrive and have the confidence to achieve anything their sighted peers can, with the right support.

Rebecca Unwin said:

“Inclusive education offers mutual understanding and removal of any potential stigma attached to special needs. We need to realise that there are millions of children out of education simply because they have a disability”.

Maisie Le Masurier said:

“This trip confirms to me that the biggest global waste of all is the loss of potential. We must act.”

The Young Ambassadors also met with government officials in Kampala (Uganda’s capital) who are responsible for education and special needs services and with other young campaigners, in order to get a picture of what is already being done to advocate for education for all. Of the total education budget, itself only 14% of the Ugandan government’s annual spending, one-tenth is supposed to be for special needs education, but campaigners say that even that amount doesn’t materialise in full.

Sightsavers has been working with the government on a special needs education policy that will address issues including teachers’ pay and training, but there is no timeline for when it will be passed.

The two schoolgirls became Young Ambassadors after winning the Steve Sinnott award for the GCE UK Send My Friend to School campaign.

Now that they have returned from Uganda, the girls will be able to use the personal stories they heard and information gathered from experts in the field to campaign for the right for all children worldwide to get a quality education, regardless of their disability.

Maisie and Rebecca will speak at the National Union of Teachers conference at Easter and in the House of Commons as representatives of the half a million young people who take part in the GCE UK’s Send My Friend to School campaign each year.

Sightsavers is a registered UK charity (Registered charity numbers 207544 and SC038110) that works in more than 30 developing countries to prevent blindness, restore sight and advocate for social inclusion and equal rights for people with disabilities. www.sightsavers.org

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