Inclusive higher education in Rwanda: The story continues
In Enabling Education Issue 7, 2003, we shared the experiences of a rural secondary school in post-Genocide Rwanda. Visually impaired students had not had access to secondary education, but with the unique efforts of educators and the parents’ committee, the school was able to include them. The story ended with Evariste’s determination to see disabled young people enrolled into Rwandan public universities. Now, three Rwandan public universities have opened their doors to male and female students with visual and hearing impairments for the first time.
It all started with a meeting convened at Kigali Institute of Education (KIE) by Dr Mujawamariya Jeanne d’ Arc, then Minister of Education. Educationalists from the Ministry and four public universities discussed how to give disabled secondary school graduates a chance to go to university. Shortly after that, The New Times newspaper reported that Rwandan universities would have to admit disabled students for the first time.
It was eight years since I had left the secondary school where I had struggled to include visually impaired students. These students were now pressing for university registration, and this pressure was felt in the Minister’s office. So after the meeting at KIE, I was asked to lead a team of 12 people (mainly educators and activists) to help universities include these students by January 2008.
I knew it would not be easy, but the Minister was clearly different from others I’d met before. She shared a dream that few other policy-makers and educationalists in Rwanda had: “It will always haunt my thoughts, if I leave this office before I see these students in the same lecture room with their peers”.
My team reviewed application and selection criteria and advised the Ministry about adjustments and equipment needed to assist disabled students. The Ministry, with the National Examination Council and the National Federation of the Disabled, provided a list of applicants with various disabilities who had qualified but could not get into university. There were over 250, so we decided on a series of phases to introduce disabled students into the universities.
In January 2008, nine blind students were admitted into the National University of Butare on Law, Languages, Journalism and Social Science courses; five deaf students joined Kigali Health Institute for various medical studies courses; and eight students (six blind, one physically impaired, and one deaf) began education training at KIE.
The government pays their fees and living costs during their studies. In addition, a special chair was made for the physically disabled student, and an assistant hired to support him in certain tasks. A resource room for blind students was built close to the universities and the Ministry of Education funded US$180,000 worth of educational materials for it. A compulsory information session and an awareness-raising day were planned for university staff.
The first few days in the university were shocking for the disabled students, and their non-disabled peers. Everyone knew from the media that these students would be enrolling. But sighted students were still surprised to see blind students on campus asking to share their notes, though many were eager to help. Now the first semester is almost over, and I see attitudes changing daily as staff and students experience the realities of their now enriched community.
We recently held a three-day seminar for educators to explain how a resource room can bridge the gap between students with impairments, their peers, teachers and the materials provided. We covered, for example, the use of equipment for Brailling and tactile imaging in providing notes and exams for visually impaired students, and discussed sport for all students.
The association of disabled students staged a play on the ‘denial of our educational rights, and its impact on our contributions to society’. Many spectators were in awe as actors depicted effective secretaries who did not need hands to use computers; and blind lawyers and mothers who executed their duties diligently.
The Minister attended, even though she had moved to a different position by then. The students knew and appreciated the crucial role she had played as “the best government cabinet member ever”. They were also aware of the role they are left with: asserting to everyone their permanent right to attend higher education and showing that they simply require equal opportunity – not more or less than their peers.
Dr Evariste Karangwa
Kigali Institute of Education
Faculty of Education (Special Needs Education)
B.P. 5039, Kigali