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Kenya, 3 December 2017: Inclusive education – A reality on the ground?

© UNICEF Kenya/2017/Simmonds
Jessica smiles at her school – Mbagathi Primary in Nairobi, Kenya.

Celebrating International Day of Persons with Disability

By Nicola Simmonds

NAIROBI, Kenya, 3 December 2017 – Twelve-year-old Jessica puts her hand on her hip and throws her head back, striking a pose, her 100-watt toothy smile flashes and her eyes twinkle. The camera flashes and she changes her pose: arms crossed in front of her, pulling a cheeky face, staring straight into the camera. She is fearless, fun and bright.

Jessica has been identified as a child with an intellectual disability all her life simply because she manifests signs of cerebral palsy, a condition caused by a lack of oxygen during birth; in Jessica’s case, a home birth, (which most of Kenya’s poor resort to. Her brother died at birth).

Fortunately, one-and-a-half years ago, Jessica’s parents enrolled her at Mbagathi Primary School in Nairobi. This Government School, a half-hour walk from the Kibera slum, is a school that has made commendable inroads from integration to an inclusive system.

Inclusive education is the philosophy of ensuring that centres of learning and education systems are open to all children; enabling learners to be included in all aspects of school life. This is no mean feat, as it requires the teachers, schools and systems to modify the physical and social environment enough to fully accommodate the learning needs for all students, including learners with disabilities.

Jessica is not a child with an intellectual disability, she is merely a child with a physical disability, which may be a result of cerebral palsy. She is very fortunate that her above-average intelligence forged the way to taking her out of a ‘Special School’ system and into a standard primary school. There are other children in this school who do have intellectual disabilities, however.

The impact of having an intellectual disability ranges considerably, just as the range of abilities varies amongst all people: children with intellectual disabilities may take longer to learn to walk, talk, look after themselves and learn at school.

Additionally, intellectual disabilities are normally ‘invisible disabilities’, whereby they often not only go undetected by the untrained, but even by those trained and working in the health system.

Many children are often therefore in danger of falling victim to outdated testing tools: the end result being that children – learners – can be misdiagnosed, erroneously categorized, or fall through the cracks. Indeed, the reason Jessica was classified as having an intellectual disability was that she could not talk clearly because of her oral muscle spasticity.

Children with disabilities often lack access to quality education and/or an enabling school environment as it is, but erroneous diagnoses create further barriers. Yet with better testing tools, early interventions and appropriate support, those with disabilities can grow up to lead contributing and satisfying lives in the community as adults.

This is what UNICEF Kenya is working hard on with the Government of Kenya, predominantly, and most importantly, at the upstream level of informed policy review, curriculum reform and continual capacity building of Education Officials and teacher trainings on the ground.

© UNICEF Kenya/2017/Simmonds

Despite Jessica’s – now obvious – high aptitude for Mathematics, English and Kiswahili, at the ‘Special School’ she previously attended, she was grouped in with others with a whole range of physical and intellectual disabilities.

Then, 18months ago, Jessica saw the Deputy Head teacher, Patrick Jumba, of Mbagathi Primary School, addressing an audience at an educational function. He was discussing inclusive education. Jessica made up her mind immediately. She would enroll in Mbagathi.

At Mbagathi Primary, Jessica was quickly included into an ordinary classroom. She is now thriving, sitting at the front of the class, and earning top marks. Although not the ideal model yet, against many odds the school is making great inroads towards realizing inclusive education.

Upon enrolment of students with disabilities, they are initially included into a ‘Special Unit’ with Special Needs teachers, but as soon as appropriately possible, they are put into the standard system where the teachers accommodate these children with extra attention.

The teachers say they would certainly welcome more training for accommodating learners with disabilities, as such training they have upon entering the teaching system in Kenya is minimal.

Additionally, they say, having more, specific learning materials and teaching tools would be very welcomed too, given that, to date, there have not been specific curricular modifications for learners with disabilities underway in the classrooms.

What is currently lacking in support has simply been compensated for by the positive attitude of the school community, led by the Head Teacher, Dorothy Obadha.

Meanwhile, another girl, Maureen, at the same school but two years ahead in Class 6, has been at the school since class 2. She is now 17, however, having been held back at home for many years because, unlike Jessica, she is a child with an intellectual disability.

Today she seems to be thriving – despite a very strong dislike of math! She does, however, have Silvia and two other best friends in her class, and they all love science “the best”.

And so today, Maureen and Jessica feel pretty much like the rest of the 1400 children at Mbagathi Primary. They are attentive, they are striving to do well, they are treated equally, and then at break, where, despite disagreeing vehemently about math, they both agree that Kati is the best game ever!



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