For the deaf, it’s a silent and difficult education

Monday, 15 April 2013 16:44 Written by  Shifa Mwesigye

He checks the side mirrors and lights of the green car – the colour of his uniform.

In the distance are children playing at the swings and slides. The air that would otherwise be filled with the chuckles of these little children is rather occupied by the sound of cars zooming past the school or tree branches swaying.

The little boy watches the visitor alight from the car and follows her to the office. He remains standing beside the stranger without saying a word. He then runs off to join his quiet schoolmates. These children are students of Uganda School for the Deaf, Ntinda. They are deaf, mute or deaf and mute with other disabilities like mental challenges and physical disability. Theirs is a quiet environment with an occasional murmur from a toddler struggling to speak. Joseph Mbulamwana, the Advocacy Coordinator of Uganda National Association of the Deaf (Unad), sums up their plight in very thought-provoking words.

“You can imagine a world without a language, a silent world, for these children. Over 90% of these children are in families. They cannot access information about their rights. They cannot enjoy the stories their sisters and brothers are telling. When they are sick, they cannot say what they are suffering from. They are very ‘invisible’” Mbulamwana says.

The school – a day and boarding establishment – is for special-needs children who cannot hear or speak. When I sit down with the deputy head teacher Daniel Kirya, he has so much to say but few people to hear him. Theirs is not a regular outfit; being a special-needs school requires more attention, more teachers, more funding and a different curriculum and exams. Deaf children who require sign language to learn cannot go to regular schools where there is no sign language teaching. This is because on top of being deaf, an ear problem usually affects the eyes and maybe the brain. Many times some deaf people do not know what is going on around them. Yet the government continues to support the oldest school for the deaf on the same terms as regular schools.

“Government supports the school with [a] grant; they send a UPE fund of Shs 50,000 per term per child which is very little compared to our needs. Running this school is hard, we need human resource more than you think is necessary. But how do you pay them?” Kirya wonders.

There are some one million deaf persons in Uganda today, according to Uganda National Association of the Deaf (Unad). To fully support one student in this school, Kirya says, it requires about Shs 1m every month. That would come to Shs 3m for every child per term. The school has 200 children. Parents think the school is a day-care centre where they just leave the children to play. They start school at age 10 when they are supposed to have acquired some bit of information, yet they don’t even know the alphabet.

“It makes life very hard for administrators to run the school. Children are brought here when they are twelve and they start to learn communicating with others at a late age,” Kirya says.

Things are made much more difficult due to the fact that the national syllabus is not fully covered in the limited sign language. Deaf children learn by seeing; if something is abstract, then there is no learning. If you do not have pictures to aid the talking, they are not going to learn. The eyes also act as the ears.

Biological terms like ‘amoeba’, ‘chromosome’ or chemical compositions are not provided for in their language. In sign language speak, “I am going to town” is interpreted as “Me go town.” Yet this is marked as wrong in national examinations! When it comes to sitting for exams, Kirya says, deaf pupils are examined and graded on the same benchmark as regular pupils. Exams are interpreted into Braille for the blind to understand, but not in sign language.

“When it comes to the deaf, it is sad news; we teach them in sign language and examine them in English. How fair is that? Very few deaf will write correct grammatical English because sign language is different from English. But does any of those who are marking the papers know ‘Me go

Kampala’ is correct?” Kirya wonders. While Uneb has responded with sign language invigilators, many are not teachers to guide the students adequately.  When it comes to subjects like Math and Chemistry, the deaf students excel. A pupil who scored 19 aggregates at the school also scored aggregate two in mathematics.

“We tell Uneb to allow us to interpret questions but they tell us that we will cheat [in the] exams. Yet every time exams are released, schools have cheated. Are those schools for the deaf?” Kirya wonders.

The school sat some 27 pupils and the best scored 19 aggregates. Ten were in fourth grade and the rest failed. No deaf pupil has scored a first grade since Uganda’s independence in 1962. Few continue to secondary education while others join vocational training institutes. Parents who can afford, send their children to Kenya’s specialised schools. There, students are examined through video coverage and answer their exams in sign language on video which is taken for marking. But Grace Ssenoga, the deputy spokesperson for National Curriculum Development Centre, promises change in the ongoing curriculum reform.

“We are developing a curriculum which will cater for special needs in the new syllabus. Their assessment will also be different and deaf students will have interpreters,” Ssenoga says.  

Negris Onen, the Assistant Commissioner Inclusive Education and Non-formal Education at the ministry of Education and Sports, says the ministry is building capacity.

“We train teachers but special-needs education teachers are on high demand, people use them as social workers that when they come out of school, they are promoted as administrators,” Onen says.

Together with Oxfam and Danida, Unad is developing a Uganda sign language because schools for the deaf use a different sign language from ones in UK or Kenya.

“For their education to take off, it’s time to study the situation of disabled people to see specific problems of children with disabilities,” says Safia Nalule, the MP for PWDs.

Mbulamwana says the ministry of local government is not even sure of the extent of the problem or even the number of deaf persons.

“They ask us, ‘are they really there?’ ”

“We are not yet walking the talk, we have departments in charge of disabilities but there are no specific strategies, [and] no budget lines to address disabled persons. The laws are in place but attitudes are still affecting deafness in Uganda. All of us are candidates of disabilities and I am requesting that we try to create an enabling environment for PWDs,” Mbulamwana says.

Information Source

The Observer