By Paul Watuwa, Diana Namutebi Petride Mudoola
Seated in their class, each of them busy with their tools, the constant sound emanating from the typewriters is all one can hear. We step in class and it is the deputy headteacher’s greeting that halts all the work in a pulse.
Composure takes the better of them as they lean back, an affirmation of their willingness and readiness to listen to him, after the greeting. This is a class at Spire Primary School in Jinja.
Evidently, it is undeniable that they are young faces who spend each day of the school term eager to learn and get knowledge to enable them live worthy lives in future.
In spite of this zeal to attain education, several limitations, just like other special needs schools, confront and threaten the smooth attainment of this noble ambition.
The limitations range from lack of essential learning and instructional materials, poor teacher-to-pupil ratio, and lack of accommodation. Housing, laments Adongo, is totally lacking, inhibiting effective execution of the teachers’ work, for instance, and moving long distances from home to school.
“We do not have learning and teaching materials, especially for mathematics. We do not have talking calculators, cubes and cube frames, tele-frames and pieces of types,” complains Margaret Adongo, one of the visually impaired special needs teachers.
Effective learning, even in the context of ably-bodied learners, can only be effective if there are fewer numbers of learners for every teacher. How about in the special needs contest? It even requires more teachers for fewer learners – ironically, special needs teachers are grappling with the numbers.
“We have many children now – so it is difficult to effectively handle them because we have few special needs teachers. We need more teachers in this unit,” Beatrice Mugalya, a visually special needs teacher at Spire says.
Currently, the school has only six teachers to cater for 30 pupils. But of these two cannot hear and the other two are blind. At Ntinda School for the Deaf, there are only 21 teachers for 218 pupils.
Mugalya, teaching such children requires so much time and attention.
Mugalya’s observation reinforces views by Juliet Tumuhairwe, the head teacher of Kampala School for the physically handicapped, views.
“Training learners with disabilities requires extra ordinary dedication to enable them achieve their goals. However, inadequate staff to train them has affected their education,” she explains.
According to the special needs curriculum, the teacher to pupil ratio should be 1: 10. Observing strict teacher to pupil ratios, Tumuhairwe notes, is crucial because unlike ordinary schools, where a single teacher is required to conduct a class, special needs learners require team work. This calls for having a physiotherapist, occupational therapists and speech therapists; for effective teaching in such schools.
Due to the absence of other specialists, teaching becomes sophisticated. More so, at times a teacher may be forced to halt a lesson to support a disabled learner to the washrooms. Apart from the incommensurate teacher-learner ratios and lack of nearby housing facilities for special needs teachers, effective administration of special needs education in Uganda is equally hampered by underfunding and late delivery of government grants.
“From the second term of last year, we have not received the subvention grant from the government to support the children,” says Catherine Bayogera, the head teacher of Walukuba West Primary School in Jinja.
The school has a special needs section comprising 47 hard of hearing, speech impaired and mentally retarded learners.
“Apart from the top up allowance we all get as teachers, special needs teachers in my opinion, should get a special allowance as a motivation from the government,” Bayogera argues.
Mbuusi, the head teacher of the Ntinda School for the Deaf, also complains about inadequate funding from the government. “Funding from the Government is inadequate.
We get the rest from parents and well-wishers to fill up the gap created by the irregular subvention grants,” Mbuusi says.
Where do they go after primary studies? According to Kakuma, their utmost interest is to see the learners proceed to the post primary school stage.
“It is always our joy when a child excels in class academically. Our hope and objective is to have most of them sail through to the top of the social ladder. There are secondary schools that have sections for special needs, like Iganga Secondary School and Madera St. Francis School for the Blind in Soroti,” Kakuma explains.
Although there is an upsurge of private schools in Uganda, little investment has been done in special needs education.
According to the state minister for the elderly and disabled Suleiman Madada, the Government has plans to promote the employment market for the disabled.
Any employer, he says, whose staff has about 5% of the disabled, gets a tax waiver of 2%. “This is aimed at promoting social and economic inclusion for persons with disabilities,” he notes.
On the challenge of low teacher numbers, he says, the matter can be remedied by widening the general curriculum of teacher training and incorporate detailed special needs education.
On the whole, although there are some functional special needs schools in Uganda, there is need for more schools for the disabled in the country, on top of increasing their the scholastic materials and teachers.