Leaving no child behind: Ensuring an inclusive COVID-19 response for children with disabilities

The pandemic is presenting an opportunity to make emergency education planning inclusive for students with disabilities in Zimbabwe.

Nyasha Mutizwa
Leticia was born with an unknown condition that has affected her ability to speak and communicate
UNICEFZimbabwe/2020/Nyasha Mutizwa
22 June 2021

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe - Leticia Sibanda, 11, shakes as her teacher changes her mask for the fourth time today. Leticia has multiple disabilities that have weakened her muscles and cause her to drool excessively on the protective cloth.

“Leticia is intellectually challenged so she cannot communicate,” shares Sthabiso Tshabalala, a headteacher at Sibatubanye Special School located in Bulawayo. “But you can see from her shaking that the mask is frustrating her. It is uncomfortable and she cannot understand why she must keep it on.” 

At the other end of the special needs’ classroom, Simbarashe Madzikura, 11, is tussling with his nurse-aid as they wash his hands with slightly soapy water. This is an alternative to using a sanitizer as anti-bacterial solutions are harmful to Simbarashe who constantly chews on his fingers due to a chronic condition that affects his daily functioning. 

Wear a mask, sanitize, and keep a physical distance. These are the three recommended steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, as Leticia and Simbarashe’s teachers explain, “A one size fits all approach to the COVID-19 response, means children with disabilities are often left excluded.”

 

Simbarashe can experience sensory issues that make it difficult for him to tolerate a mask.
UNICEFZimbabwe/2021/Nyasha Mutizwa
Simbarashe can experience sensory issues that make it difficult for him to tolerate a mask.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an opportunity to re-think emergency planning for children like Leticia and Simbarashe. The two represent over 85,500 students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) in Zimbabwe who require unique solutions towards the COVID-19 response.

For the almost 10 and a half thousand children with hearing disabilities, for example, masks deter their ability to lip-read and understand facial expressions. “They make social interaction impossible,” says Karlon Ndlovu, headmaster at Leticia and Simbarashe’s school. “For the children with hearing aids, the masks interfere and annoy them. A shared lunchtime is a nightmare and children feel frustrated because they cannot communicate. These learners, therefore, need transparent protective face covers."

To address this, UNICEF has procured around 6,000 face shields which are being distributed to all special schools and mainstream schools with children with disabilities.

It has been noted that observing specific hygiene recommendations such as social distancing is a mighty task for Zimbabwe’s 4,500 students with multiple disabilities as they require consistent physical support from their teachers. Masks must consistently be changed, and assistive devices, toys and wheelchairs must be sanitized regularly.

In response to these challenges, UNICEF in partnership with the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), has supported the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education (MoPSE) in the procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Over 26,100 bottles of liquid soap, 4,000 thermometers and over 200,000 cloth masks were delivered to more than 3,700 schools in 2020. This is providing 102,000 educators with the means to respect the hygiene measures.

Furthermore, special needs educators are taking on the COVID-19 vaccine without much hesitation. Teachers were placed on the priority list of the government’s Phase 2 vaccine rollout. Some 6 special needs schools in Bulawayo, with a minimum teaching and nursing staff of 50 per institution, have encouraged their staff to take the jab. At Leticia and Simbarashe’s school, all staff have been vaccinated. This includes teachers, nurse aids, cleaning and support staff who have voluntarily chosen to take the extra step to protect their students.

Finding inclusive alternative learning solutions 

During the COVID-19 induced lockdowns and the subsequent school closures, many institutions turned to online instruction to ensure continuity of learning. However, devices, websites and programmes were simply not accessible to students with visual or hearing disabilities and children from impoverished homes.

MOPSE developed 13 storybooks for learners between 4-7 years, meant to support children in the development of early literacy skills. Three of these storybooks were transcribed into braille. Through support from GPE, UNICEF has facilitated the production of 1000 copies of each, and these (total 3000) are being sent to special schools, and to those schools with resource units for children with disabilities.

Furthermore, teachers in Bulawayo used personal means to send material to the students in Braille during the lockdowns. This however did not account for those who live in poverty and lack access to digital platforms.

UNICEF is attempting to counter this by implementing a low-tech solution – remedial classes via radio under the Radio Education Programme. However, as headmaster Ndlovu shares, “We are grateful for the radio lessons, but they are not practical for children that have intellectual disabilities and equally for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.”

To address this challenge, UNICEF and MoPSE have launched television education lessons. The TV schooling is inclusive of sign language and airs in conjunction with the Radio Education Programme on the national broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC). 

Furthermore, UNICEF in partnership with the GPE and the Education Development Fund is working on lower-tech or no-tech solutions for children with intellectual disabilities. This will better support those who have been excluded from home-based learning and ensure that their social and emotional needs are met.

The issues highlighted are just the tip of the iceberg. It is the collective responsibility of UNICEF, government, teachers, parents, and caregivers to help reduce educational inequality for students with disabilities.

The pandemic is driving the country to reinvent the wheel on education crisis management to ensure children like Leticia and Simbarashe are not left behind.