By Stephen V. Lansana
When Edward Noah was born, 23 years ago, he opened his eyes to see a dark world. He was born partially blind and, with time, his eye sight went away completely. Now he lives in complete darkness and yet he dreams, and works very hard, to become a lawyer. In order to achieve that, he was to fight against an educational system that is not equipped, and which is unwilling, to help children with special needs achieve educational excellence in their own country.
Despite the loss of eye sight, Noah attended the Missionary Church of Africa Primary School in Nyawulia and scored 333 in his exam. He processed to Barawa Government Secondary School, Nenie Chiefdom, Koinadugu. From there on, Noah’s father thought it was better for his child to attend a school specialized for the blind, and sent him to Kabala. With his sight completely gone, Noah could not even think of how he could sit his Math exams. The West Africa Examination Council (WAEC) entered a “grade-07” and failed him. “I gained admission to Ammadiyya Agricultural senior school in 2013, but I became sick in 2015 and I came to Freetown for medication. After my recovery I returned to the school for readmission, but the Principal told me that there is no more space in the school. Since then, I have gone to Saint John in Tonkolili district and Sengbe Pieh Memorial Secondary School, Hamilton, but the Principals asked me how I will cope with the learning process? This is killing my dream of becoming a lawyer,” says Noah.
Mr Francis Kabbia, Director of Social Welfare at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affair says he is not aware of the failed practice. “It is news for me to hear that WAEC gives a failed grade to blind students who did not take Mathematics because of lack of braille question paper. But now that I have known this, I will call the stakeholders so that we will discuss the way forward.”
On paper, the Government of the Republic of Sierra Leone has committed to paying between 70% and 80% of university fees for people with disabilities (PWD), says the president of the Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues (SLUDI), Santigie Kargbo. But in reality, according to him, when PWDs want to go to university, they are faced with lack of access ramps to the buildings, lack of educational materials for the visually impaired and lack of Sign language teachers. These are all failures of the past and current governments that turn a blind eye when it comes to implementing the very legislation they have enacted.
Santigie says that “for the deaf, dumb and disabled, we hardly see [them] going to formal educational institutions because we don’t have sign language interpreters in the classrooms of any of the learning institutions in the country.”
The potential students who are visually impaired could also benefit from the partially paid university fees, if only they would have access to school books written in Braille. Braille is a tactile [connected with the sense of touch] writing system used by people who are visually impaired.
Mr. Santigie knows of at least one or two cases of blind Law students at Fourah Bay College dropping out of school because the study materials are not in Braille. He calls this an “information barrier” which is present in the various learning institutions in the country. “We don’t have teachers or lecturers that can give preference to students with partial blindness.” He says they have drafted an inclusive education policy dealing with how to rectify the various issues that persons with disability are facing. Government will recruit sign language interpreters, train teachers on disability issues, make the school curriculum disability friendly, among other disability issues.
Another issue highlighted by the president of the SLUDI is that blind students are frequently given fail grades in mathematics, even though they have not taken the exam, due to lack of Braille materials, as experienced by Noah.
“The exam body is supposed to enter absent instead of giving them a fail grade [F7],” Santigie notes. He claims that the blind students preparing to take the Basic Education Certificate Examination or West Africa Senior School Certificate Examination have already been given fail grades by the exam body [West Africa Examination Council] even before taking the exam.
Ambassador Dr. Vandy Konneh is the Founder and Executive Director of the Disability Rights Movement (DRIM). He says, “The issues regarding disability in the country are complex and controversial. We can look at it from the governance aspect, or we can start from the community perspective.” At community level, most persons with disability are denied participation in decision making at home by their own family members. They are generally not consulted.
At national level, three arms of the government are responsible for the current situation faced by persons with disabilities. The legislative body, which is the Parliament, only has two persons with disabilities, from the C4C and APC political parties. Dr. Konneh is looking forward to the day when these two members of Parliament will start having an impact and bring up issues related to disability for debate and legislation.
The second arm of the government where people with disabilities (PWD) are under-represented is the Judiciary. No PWD has become a Magistrate or a Judge, According to Dr. Konneh “In most cases, when someone takes a person with disability to the Police, the police will pass judgment on them by saying that these people are troublesome. And when the matter goes to court there are no Sign language interpreters and the court procedures are not transcribed in Braille.”
Finally, there are no PWDs in the Executive branch of the government. “This situation has a triple effect on the welfare of the disabled. “Resources are not adequately secured; honour and dignity of persons with disabilities are lost.” This, according to Dr. Konneh is because there is no one to champion the cause of the disabled at that level. As a result of this, many persons with disabilities are on the street begging. Many of them are begging around prominent offices and nothing has been done to salvage the situation.”
The education should be free for persons with disability. “It is a legal issue because the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disability was rectified [and] enacted into the Disability Act of 2011 which of course made provision for free education for all disabled,” says Dr. Konneh. He now wonders why, if education is free for the disabled, has the government failed to provide appropriate teaching materials such as Braille and Sign language teachers and, more importantly, why there are no access ramps to schools and universities and government offices for people with physical disabilities.
Mr Saa Lamin Kortequee is the Executive Secretary of the National Commission for Persons with Disability. He has polio, but he studied in overseas. He says that government is giving subventions to special needs schools, but that there is no senior secondary school for special needs students. “The new paradigm shift is inclusive education. But under the inclusive education policy, government also needs to make the environment accessible, provide learning materials in Braille and sign language interpreters.”
Unfortunately, according to Mr Francis Kabbia, Director of Social Welfare the proposed development plan of government does not make issues relating to persons with disability visible. “Very little attention will be given to persons with disability and this will be a constraint for us,” he warned, although he is pleased that the ministry of basic education has committed to do everything possible to make study materials available for students with special needs.