I was about 11 when I first encountered a child living with a disability. On a school trip to Sisters of Divine Mercy Orphanage in Gwagwalada, Abuja, the Reverend sister attending to us explained that Esther, the little girl following her around, was epileptic, and her older brother was partially blind. The two of them needed special education that was too expensive for the orphanage to provide without external assistance.
Esther and her brother are not alone.
80% of the 150 million children with disabilities in the world live in developing countries. According to a 2017 World Bank Study, the literacy gap between these children and their able-bodied peers has increased substantially over the last 30 years, a gap exacerbated by inequalities like higher tuitions and inaccessible school buildings. For instance, the gap in primary school completion between children with and without disabilities is 15 percentage points for girls and 18 percentage points for boys.
In 2016, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) staff conducted a collection of sample surveys to measure the Nigerian perspective on disabilities. The surveys found that the discrimination against disabilities in Nigeria stems from the negative perception of people living with disabilities in communities, i.e. viewing disabilities as a curse. Moreover, these negative attitudes (arising from misinformed cultural beliefs) have led to the poor identification, evaluation, screening and placement of children with disabilities.
In 2006, the United Nations Convention on the rights of people with disabilities defined disability as any long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder an individual’s full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.
The 2011 WHO report on disabilities outlines a bi-directional relationship between disability and poverty. Disability manifests in inequities that breed poverty and poverty can worsen outcomes for people living with disabilities. Numerous studies support this view. People living with disabilities are more likely to be economically disadvantaged than other people, face reduced unemployment opportunities and lower adulthood productivity due to lack of education, and so on.
In addition, people living with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed and earn less than their peers even when employed. Due to the general lack of inclusion of people with disabilities when designing public amenities, they have limited access to transportation, health services and public spaces like parks and recreation centers. All of these negative implications, coupled with the higher cost of living with disabilities, provide an urgent moral and economic basis to confront the challenges facing people living with disabilities.
Section 8 of the National Policy on Education for Nigeria (implemented in 1977) mandates the provision of quality education to children with special needs amongst other beneficial programmes. However, this policy is mere lip-service if children with disabilities continue to lack access to funding or qualified special education teachers.
To put it practically, this dream of quality education is impossible without learning materials that accommodate disabilities, such as braille keyboards and voice-over functions for the visually impaired. And the policy is toothless since it has not been accompanied by supplementary legal mechanisms, for example, guidelines for teaching sign language or minimum standards for textbook manufacturing companies.
Without access to quality education, children living with disabilities are unable to contribute meaningfully to the economy, are more prone to violence and experience a slower pace of social and human development.
Concurrent with the UN’s sustainable development goals, African countries like Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya are implementing policies programmes that ensure the integration and inclusivity of people with disabilities.
In Kenya, in partnership with UNICEF, the government has developed an accessible digital textbook that incorporates features such as voice-overs for the visually impaired learners, sign language instruction for the hearing impaired learners and interactivity options for all students. The beautiful part about learning with the accessible textbook is its customisation function. Learning can be tailored to the specific needs of a child. It can be used for children with and without disabilities, and more specifically, students can use the material with light supervision.
In an ideal world, the Federal Government would tackle the issue by requiring civil engineers and architects to design school buildings to accommodate people living with disabilities through ramps, braille door tags, etc. It could also provide tablets for children and require textbook manufacturers to modify the digital versions to include functions of the accessible digital textbook.
The world we live in is far from ideal, and in this world, Nigeria faces significant problems in its education sector, from a lack of qualified teachers to outdated curriculum and learning materials. Furthermore, the government faces budgetary constraints that make it unlikely it would increase the Ministry of Education Budget from 7% of budgeted spending (current) to 26% (recommended).
Nevertheless, the problem is urgent and creative solutions must be found. For example, priority could be given to those with disabilities in all the government’s social welfare and cash transfer programs. To tackle the education problem, the Ministry could provide accessible transport systems for children who cannot afford to go to school. Furthermore, the government could subsidise the cost of school attendance, from school uniforms, writing supplies and necessary items like sanitary pads for ladies, as an acknowledgement of the cost of attending school with a disability.
Let us be clear: creating an equitable and accessible environment for people with disabilities to live and thrive among their peers is not charity. Rather, it is the economic responsibility of the government and is in the best interests of the citizenry they represent.
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