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Within a span of 12 months being at UNICEF Kenya as Expert on Mission on Inclusive Education, I have engaged myself in initiatives and processes that have allowed me to make observations and reflections on the whole issue of inclusive education for children with disabilities in Kenya. Hence, I share this article to present some of them. Note that these perspectives are my own and do not represent UNICEF Kenya.
Special schools in Kenya are named on the principle of ‘Identity First Language’ and with emphasis on the use of ‘handicapped’ and ‘challenged’. For instance, schools are named ‘… School for the Mentally Challenged’ and ‘… School for the Physically Handicapped’.
During both casual and formal conversations, people with disabilities are called ‘visually impaired’, ‘hearing impaired’, and ‘mentally challenged’. In addition, acronyms are widely used to address them. For instance, those with blindness are known as ‘VI’, those with physical disabilities are called ‘PH’ (to mean ‘physically handicapped’), and those with intellectual disabilities are known as ‘MH’ (to mean ‘mentally handicapped’).
Furthermore, it is worth noting how ‘children with special needs’ to mean ‘children with disabilities’ is widely used. For instance, a ‘blind child’ is generally referred to as a ‘child with special needs’, and not ‘child with a disability’.
I believe in the power of terminologies or language in shaping attitudes and perceptions towards disability. Hence, it is essential that appropriate terms are used to address people with disabilities. Due to their negative connotation, ‘handicapped’ and ‘challenged’ should not be used. In addition, based on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), it is strongly suggested to utilize ‘Person First Language’ [PFL] as a principle in addressing those with disabilities. This means, for instance, ‘children with autism’ should be used than ‘autistic children’. However, it must be noted that there are variations on how to address persons with disabilities and that it is important to consult them on how they prefer to be addressed.
there are variations on how to address persons with disabilities and that it is important to consult them on how they prefer to be addressed
In some contexts, acronyms are used to address those with disabilities. As examples, ‘PWD’ is used to refer to ‘People With Disabilities’ and ‘LWD’ is used to mean ‘Learners With Disabilities’. This approach is highly discouraged by the disability sector.
Finally, it is important to highlight that ‘special needs’ covers all forms of vulnerabilities, ‘disability’ being one of them. Hence, using ‘children with special needs’ to mean ‘children with disabilities’ is reductive. Furthermore, the disability community is increasingly criticising the ‘special needs’ label, based on the idea that every child is different and deserves a more individualised educational plan. Education needs to meet the needs, capabilities and preferences of all learners.
The move from segregation to inclusive education is faced with some challenges. Many people believe it is not possible in the Kenyan context, or think that putting a deaf child in a regular classroom without support constitutes inclusive education. Furthermore, two questions are always raised questioning the practicality of inclusive education: (1) What will happen to the 300 or more special schools in Kenya if children with disabilities are enrolled in regular classrooms? (2) Do children with severe and profound disabilities benefit from inclusion?
I believe that what people see on the ground are integration and not inclusive education. Integration implies that a child with a disability is placed in a regular classroom with the expectation that he or she should fit into the system; otherwise, he or she will fail. On the other hand, inclusive education means the other way around – a child is placed in a regular classroom with accommodations and support for him or her to thrive. This is the reason why it is critical for people to have the understanding of the big difference between the two approaches.
From experiences, there are varied responses to the questions on the practicality of inclusive education. Several pieces of literature stress that in moving towards inclusive education, special schools should be utilized as ‘resource centers’ where regular teachers are trained on teaching strategies, for example. Furthermore, the question on whether children with severe and profound disabilities benefit from inclusion requires pieces of empirical evidence supporting the claim. However, no study in Kenya and in the world, at least from my review, stresses that these children cannot benefit from inclusion. Instead, it is important to emphasize the fact that all children have the potential to thrive in learning environments responsive and sensitive to their diverse needs, and that governments should explore strategies and mechanisms that would support the move towards inclusion.
all children have the potential to thrive in learning environments responsive and sensitive to their diverse needs, and that governments should explore strategies and mechanisms that would support the move towards inclusion
On another note, it is commendable to hear how stakeholders articulate the phrase ‘…we move towards inclusive education’, yet in most cases, especially in consultation processes, regular teachers are not involved; present on the table, as always are specialized teachers and staff. Since inclusive education is all about regular schools, it is essential that regular teachers should be included at all levels of discussions regarding inclusive education. In this way, we highlight the importance of ‘ownership’ in sustaining inclusive education.
It has been a recognized fact that Kenya’s Educational Assessment Resource Centres (EARCs) is faced with a challenge especially on the aspect of capacity building; staff are not well trained, assessment tools used are outdated, and there is no available data on infrastructure and facilities of the EARCs. This challenge has been manifested in a number of my interactions with children with disabilities on the ground. For example, a child with cerebral palsy, who has tightness and stiffness in his or her oral muscles (which affects his or her speech, as a result) is assessed as having an intellectual disability because ‘she could not talk clearly’.
In addition, I observe that certain disabilities are considered similar even if technically, they are different. For example, a child with autism or cerebral palsy is automatically perceived as having intellectual disabilities.
It is important to highlight as well that ‘mild, moderate, severe, and profound disabilities’ are perceived subjectively. From a technical perspective, those with multiple disabilities, for example, may be considered with severe or profound disabilities. However, for some, low vision is a form of a mild disability, while having a total blindness is a severe or profound one. Same applies to hearing impairment: hard of hearing is a mild disability and deafness is a severe or profound one.
On another note, in Kenya, there is a tendency to put focus or emphasis on sensory impairments (visual, hearing), missing out some disabilities especially ‘invisible disabilities’ (autism, intellectual disability, etc). This is manifested in a number of events where sensory impairments are represented, but not the invisible ones.
In the work that I do, I draw guidance from established legal frameworks internationally and nationally such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Kenya, having signed and ratified the said convention, should establish mechanisms to ensure that its national and local policies are aligned with the CRPD, as an example. However, it is important to note that in a number of instances, a significant number of people in Kenya consider CRPD as an ‘intruder’, arguing that while Kenya signed and ratified it, its stipulations are not necessarily relevant and responsive to the needs on the ground.
I believe this is an issue of ‘ownership’. Simple question to raise, ‘Have people been consulted about the CRPD before it has been signed and ratified?’ In a lot of instances, people do not even know about the convention, and if they do, they have not read it in detail at all.
Is disability a barrier to education?
In a number of publications and reports I read in Kenya, there is an emphasis on perceiving ‘disability’ as a barrier to accessing learning. This means that if I a blind child is not able to go to school, it is caused by his or her blindness per se.
It must be noted that from a social model of disability perspective, it is not the impairment or disability of the child that hinders him or her from going to school; rather is it the overall inaccessible learning environments. Surely, if schools have ramps for wheelchair users, learning materials in different formats, accepting attitude towards disability, and differentiated curriculum, children with disabilities will thrive.
Are we engaging children with disabilities authentically?
Theoretically, there is an emphasis on the importance of ‘children’s voice’ in moving towards disability and inclusion: children should be given the space to share their views and perspectives. However, in practice, this seems not translated. For instance, in data collection, researchers have the tendency to interview those who ‘can talk well’ and not those who ‘could not’. As a result, most captured perspectives are taken only from children who can verbally articulate their ideas, and not those with intellectual disabilities or autism, for example.
Are ‘inclusion’ and ‘accessibility’ purely theoretical?
In most of the events I participated where people with disabilities were also participating, activities were not necessarily inclusive. For instance, someone was demonstrating how to do an action song without describing the physical movements and as a result blind participants could not follow through; visual presentations used small fonts which those with visual impairments could not see.
This is the paradox or irony of the work on disability and inclusion. We talk a lot about inclusion and accessibility. But are we practicing them?
CONCLUSION AND MOVING FORWARD
Kenya, in general, should be commended for its efforts in moving towards inclusive education. The ongoing political processes speak clearly about the commitment of the government and the whole society in Kenya on disability and inclusion. However, the country and its stakeholders need to review their understanding towards the issue and reflect on how to do ‘things better’. The process of haphazardly assessing children with disabilities, for instance, is an unacceptable thing, and should be addressed as soon as possible.
Moving forward, I suggest to undertake the following suggestions with the goal of ensuring that inclusive education for children with disabilities is authentically and meaningfully implemented.
First, the issues of using inappropriate terminologies and misconstruing inclusive education from integration are all products of low awareness or understanding about the whole issue of disability and inclusion. Hence, it is essential to develop intensive and sustainable advocacy strategies on inclusive education to increase the awareness, understanding, and capacities of stakeholders and the society in general. These can be done through workshops, fora, and media engagement. Pre-requisite to this suggestion is the need to develop standardized and internationally recognized modules and communication packages on inclusive education, which should be context specific and culturally appropriate.
Second, developing assessment tools for children with disabilities that are holistic and reliable is critical in ensuring that these children are correctly and accurately assessed. Putting ‘wrong labels’ to children with disabilities is inexcusable. This is the reason why Kenya needs to slowly embrace the principles of International Classification of Functions (ICF), which perceives disability as a result of interactions between the environment and impairment, and all other factors. In addition, a situation analysis of EARCs should be done with the ultimate goal of allocating resources.
Third, touching on ‘ownership’, the authentic engagement or participation of people with disabilities and their families and the society in general is essential in sustaining the move towards inclusive education. When stakeholders feel they are being listened to, they develop the sense of ownership; materializing the slogan ‘Nothing about us, without us’. This implies that when facilitating processes on disability and inclusion, there is a need to be deliberate in ensuring that relevant stakeholders, especially those with disabilities, are represented and are listened to.
Finally, what should be the suggestion to ensure that all of us not only talk about inclusion and accessibility, but also practice it? This is tricky especially that we can never teach ‘attitude’. However, from my experience, role modelling works. This means that experts and advocates should set an example to others on how to practice inclusion and accessibility. I remember when I was facilitating a workshop and there were blind participants. Since they could not see the images and texts on the screen, I would describe first how the images looked like and then read the texts. After the session, people started doing the same thing – describing the images and reading the texts – to ensure that the blind participants were included in the discussion. Furthermore, I also remember when I started using ‘brailled’ calling cards, my friends and colleagues were encouraged to have their cards ‘brailled’ as well, recognizing the importance of information accessibility for people with disabilities especially those who are blind. We should all acknowledge and get better at is the fact that we do not always get things right, and when it happens, it is important to acknowledge criticisms and try to improve. Consulting with persons with disabilities is of paramount importance – their experiences living with disabilities make them experts and we should leverage on that.
We should all acknowledge and get better at is the fact that we do not always get things right, and when it happens, it is important to acknowledge criticisms and try to improve.
[Cover photo © LWF World Service Kenya]