Sunday, April 24, 2016

Nigeria needs inclusive education for children with disabilities

 Inclusion is not a strategy to help people fit into the systems and structures which exist in our societies; it is about transforming the system and structures to make it better for everyone. Inclusion is about creating a better world for everyone. Let our actions be a yardstick of quality to greater height for our betterment.” - Dana Richeler, past President of Inclusion International

On Tuesday, April 19, 2016, Nigerians from all walks of life gathered in Abuja to demand unequivocally for inclusive education for children with disabilities. It was the official media launch on ‘Inclusive Basic Education for Children with Disabilities’ and official presentation of a baseline survey report, factsheets, policy briefs and the Model for Accessible & Inclusive School Environment poster.  The event was organised by Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities with support from USAID Strengthening Advocacy and Civic Engagement Programme in Nigeria. In attendance were representatives from the Federal Ministry of Education, Universal Basic Education, House of Representatives, civil society organisations and the media. I happened to be one of the special guests of honour at the event.

Did you know that the World Bank reported that less than 3 per cent of persons with disabilities receive any formal   education, especially in the Global South, Nigeria being one those countries listed? Did you also know that research has shown that children with disabilities constitute more than 30 per cent of the over 10 million out-of-school children in Nigeria? Are you also aware that even if all primary and secondary schools were adequate for all school-age children in Nigeria, children with disabilities would still remain out of school because virtually all primary and secondary schools in Nigeria are designed, built and managed in ways that is totally not inclusive of, and not accessible to children with disabilities?

According to UNICEF, over three million children with disabilities are out of school in Nigeria. This is because their education is confined to the very few, archaic, poorly funded and inadequately staffed special schools which are mostly sited in very distant hard-to-reach locations.

It wasn’t that there are no laws or policy framework in place to deal with this ugly phenomenon. I know for a fact that Nigeria has signed and ratified the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 24 of which provides that all schools must be inclusive of, and accessible to all children including those with disabilities. Nigeria has equally signed-up to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Goal 4 of which targets that by 2030, all school-age children including those with disabilities must have access to qualitative, functional and effective basic education. The National Policy on Education provides that education must be inclusive and that all children including those with disabilities have the right to qualitative, functional and effective basic education. The Universal Basic Education Act of 2004 provides that basic education is free and compulsory for all school-age children while Section 42 of Nigerian Constitution speaks of freedom from all forms of discrimination.

Why then are we still back-bencher in the provision of inclusive education in Nigeria? According to Dr. Dikko Suleiman who is the Executive Secretary of the Universal Basic Education Commission, some challenges being faced in inclusive education include insufficient educational fund, high cost of educational materials, lack of proper architectural designs for special institutions and ineffective implementation of policies.

When we talk about inclusive education, what do we really mean?  According to Mrs. Anne O. Okonkwo, the Director, Basic and Secondary Education at the Federal Ministry of Education who also represented the Hon. Minister of Education at the media event, “Inclusive Education is concerned with all learners, with the focus on those who have traditionally been excluded from educational opportunities – such as learners with Special Needs, Orphans and Vulnerable Children. Inclusive Education therefore, brings together different children to learn in the same environment, irrespective of background, socio – cultural status, special learning needs or abilities.”

Despite the daunting challenges at providing inclusive education, government has been making attempts to redress the ugly phenomenon.   According to Mrs. Okonkwo, the Federal Ministry of Education, in collaboration with the Education Sector Support Programme in Nigeria, has developed a draft National Policy on Inclusive Education with the active participation of stakeholders including JONAPWD. It is expected that with the policy, the diverse learning needs of all children will be achieved through equitable access to appropriate education irrespective of individual strength, weaknesses, hopes and expectations in the same safe school environment.

On the part of UBEC, as part of the efforts aimed at providing basic education for all Nigerian children irrespective of their situation and location, the Federal Government enacted the Universal Basic Education Law in 2004 and also makes a provision of 2 per cent  of its Consolidated Revenue Fund  to finance the UBE programme. To this effect, Universal Basic Education has disbursed funds for construction of special education schools, instructional material, learning and teaching aids to State Universal Basic Education Boards in all the 36 States and FCT.  A percentage of the funds was earmarked and disbursed to some selected private providers of special needs education across the Country as a support from the Federal Government.

What are the demands of JONAPWD on this nagging issue? It wants the states and federal government to provide required infrastructure and facilities like accessible classrooms, toilets, playgrounds, offices, assistive technologies, mobility aides, visual aids and hearing aids. It says further that government does not have to build new schools. Rather, existing regular basic schools should be rehabilitated and provided with the aforementioned infrastructure and facilities to make them inclusive of and accessible to children with disabilities.

 It opined further that strategic and intensive capacity-building for teachers should be the priority of the state and federal government. Regular teachers should be adequately exposed to the nature, practice and demands of special and inclusive education. More course units on special and inclusive education should be made compulsory for all teachers-to-be, especially those going to teach at primary and secondary school levels. JONAPWD also called on Federal and state governments to set-up Special Fund for the implementation of inclusive education as well as make adequate annual budgetary allocations to ensure proper delivery of inclusive basic education for children with disabilities in Nigeria. It also challenged the media organisations to rethink their educational programmes, features, documentaries, articles, and news to effectively mainstream issues of PWDs. In truth, failure to cater to the needs of these special children may haunt us as a country tomorrow as they may constitute security threat to our collective existence.

Jide is the Executive Director of OJA Development Consult, Abuja.