Make schools, colleges accessible for students with disabilities

As Zimbabweans we stand proud of the massive expansion of our educational sector since independence in 1980. The country has seen reforms in the education system in line with the Government policy of “Education for All”. Primary and secondary schools have been built in marginalised areas and disadvantaged urban centres, while training of teachers and provision of teaching and learning materials to schools has accelerated.

Wheelchair Access SymbolOur education compares with the best in Africa. We now almost have a university in each province. However, this massive educational expansion also came with a serious oversight. In carrying out this exercise, policymakers failed to take note of the fact that the infrastructure had to be accessible to everyone.

Most of the institutions are largely inaccessible to people with disabilities. UNESCO estimates that around 23 million children with disabilities are not attending school, the majority of whom are living in developing countries.

This is largely attributed to inaccessibility of the places to people with disabilities. Recently, I visited one of our newer universities to attend a graduation ceremony for my niece. A young man in a neat black suit caught my eye. The man, whom we shall call David, moved his wheelchair around every so often, at the entrance to the male toilets. Sensing that he needed assistance I asked him what the matter was.

“I have come here for the graduation but I can’t get into the toilet,” he smiled in anticipation.

It took me and two other men quite some time to help him out of his wheel-chair and up the steps onto the toilet seat. We had to assist him to sit because there were no hand rails.

Surely, going into restrooms should not be such a nightmare for people with disabilities when there has been so much sensitisation on the need to recognise the rights of those with disabilities. Just this single incident shows you how we forget people with disabilities when we design public infrastructure. We do not consult them. At least in the incident cited above, David had the blessing of a toilet seat.

In almost all our rural schools we have Blair toilets. How do we expect people with disabilities to use such infrastructure, when they cannot squat? We need to convert our Blair toilets in schools, villages and growth points into user-friendly facilities through installation of toilet seats.

Wells and boreholes can support modern toilet flushing systems. Companies can be commissioned to design toilet seats that can be used without a flushing system.

Why are we making such a hullabaloo about a toilet?

Listen to what American poet Thomas Lynch once said: “The flush toilet, more than any single invention, has ‘civilised’ us in a way that religion and law could never accomplish.” The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) calls on us as a nation to develop an inclusive education system.

Research has shown that students with and without disabilities achieve better academic results in inclusive environments, given adequate support.

We should have regular reports from the Primary and Secondary Education Ministry and the Higher and Tertiary Education Ministry on how they are making mainstream schools more accessible to disabled students. The Government has an obligation to do under the CRPD.

As part of efforts to make our educational institutions inclusive, it should be mandatory for schools, including colleges, polytechnics and universities to have disability representative bodies with a physical office. Schools and institutions have vibrant committees on HIV, research, students’ welfare, etc. Why not have one for people with disabilities?

The University of Zimbabwe has a disability resource centre that works quite well. That should be the standard set up at all educational institutions.

Disability committees should be a must.

Apart from serving the needs of students with disabilities, these will assist institutions to implement accessibility requirements. School disability committees can look at whether an institution is suitably adapted for those who are blind, height-challenged or deaf.

We have ignored for far too long the educational requirements of those who are deaf. We have shut them out completely as if they live in another planet. Can anyone stand up and say out loud that they have seen a deaf student in an engineering or horticultural class, or even at a university for that matter. We need to admit our shortcomings and then proceed to do what is right.

Walkways at educational institutions are problematic for those who are blind and also for wheelchair users. They should be rammed into compact pathways, paved or even tarred. Many a time you see them covered with quarry stones, which makes it very difficult for wheelchair users to negotiate. For those who are blind we should have names of classrooms in Braille, on door handles.

When I spoke to Hedwick Machina, an IT specialist who uses a wheelchair, I was taken aback:

“Can you imagine that we still have some teachers and headmasters’ offices that are not accessible to wheelchair users? No one also gives a thought to the fact that we cannot get into entertainment halls because of the way they are constructed,” she added.

When education officers go on their school visits, or ministers tour institutions, do they take note of such anomalies?

In their annual reports school authorities announce that sports facilities are in good shape or new ones have been constructed yet you may find that the roads to the sports fields are not accessible. The reports may speak glowingly about the state of the residential halls but you will find the dormitories and ablution facilities inaccessible.

An inclusive approach will ensure that our chalkboards are perched at levels where everyone, including students in wheelchairs can reach out and write without difficulty.

Almost all our institutional libraries are not suitably resourced for the physically challenged. The Dorothy Duncan Braille Library for the Blind should be consulted on how to make our institutional libraries accessible.

We have annual research and intellectual expos, Harare agricultural shows and ZITF showcasing innovation from institutions. It’s about time we saw them showcasing new accessibility technologies for students with disabilities.

Joseph Phiri, a teacher from Raffingora, put it quite well:

“Planning infrastructure for people with disabilities requires an intricate plan, just like when we are preparing itinerary for a presidential visit, “It should be simple, basic, thorough but painstaking,” he said.

To wind off, let’s take note of the words of Rolando Villamero, a member of the United Nations Global Initiative Youth Advocacy Group, who says that the media is an important partner in making families, schools and communities aware of the many challenges that people with disabilities face. He says government officials need to continuously undergo training on the importance of making learning environments inclusive.

We should actively include Persons with Disabilities in every decision taken by communities and Government because they are not an isolated group. They are a part of our society and the challenges they face require a multi-sectoral response.

By Peter Banga

Source: The Herald

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