Non-formal education for children with severe disabilities: My journey to formal education
When he was three years old Ronald became physically impaired as a result of polio. Here he relates his own personal journey through education; from home-based non-formal education to Masters graduate.
Growing up within an inclusive family environment, I had not realised the limitations caused by my severe physical disability. I would be involved along with siblings in most household activities: taking my turn to help with food preparation and cleaning utensils among other household chores. I would never feel lonely as I was at the centre of the games; my siblings and children from the neighbourhood were ready to carry me to wherever we needed to go.
However, while I would participate in all home-based activities, I was not attending school. Other children would dash to school every morning after we had shared breakfast. No one urged me to go to school, as was the case for my siblings. I confronted my mother who hesitantly reported: “Ronald, you are disabled; you cannot manage in the school”. That was the time I recognised my limited opportunities as a child growing up with a disability. I had never confronted failure in my life and was not ready to accept defeat. I therefore insisted on going to school.
The nearest school was about 2 km from home. I did not have a wheelchair at the time to aid my movement. I was nevertheless ready to crawl to school. Mother did not want to hurt my feelings; she bought a book and pencil and wished me luck. I hardly slept that night. I was very anxious to start school. In the morning, my siblings dashed as usual after breakfast. I set off afterwards on my journey to school. I crawled for a considerable distance and started feeling the severe pinch of stones. I was ready to push on had it not been for a heavy downpour which forced me to return. On reaching home, I was soaked and dirty. I had lost my book to the rain, was shivering and had accepted my inability to go to school.
Although Uganda has achieved much in the direction of inclusive education, getting to school remains as one of the greatest challenges. For example, boarding schools, of which there are many in Uganda, have no facilities to meet the special needs of children with disabilities. Therefore, ‘universal primary education’ and ‘universal secondary education’ (UPE & USE) policies assume that disabled students had to be ‘day scholars’. However, in some of our communities the nearest school is 15 km away.
Studying with friends
My mother was equally challenged. She had witnessed my unquenchable desire to go to school. At the recommendation of a teacher, she bought a board, chalks and text books. She called a meeting with all the children and informed them that as I wanted to go to school, but could not walk, they should teach me. What I now appreciate to be a ‘child-to-child approach’ had started. We organised ourselves and every day we would spend an hour or two on study activities. Many times it would be a reflection of what some of the children had covered at school, or elder children served as ‘teachers’ and the rest pupils. It was fun as I used to out-perform them all at exercises and tests.
This non-formal educational arrangement helped me in many important ways; while I was not attending a formal school setting, I was growing up physically and could have missed out on important psycho-social developments required during formative years. I was able to learn social skills and emotional self-control in “real time” which were all to help me later after enrolment. Besides, I could have given up with school if it were not for this arranged non-formal educational opportunity; because at the time of enrolment I was already too big a boy (about 10 -12 years) to fit comfortably with pre-primary or primary-one pupils.
Later, I was lucky to get enrolled into school, not because I had now secured a wheelchair; actually, I stayed in school for five years without one. I could only crawl to get around the school. Instead, the civil war that took place in Uganda in 1980s was to me a blessing in disguise. It dis-organised systems and my mother entrusted me to the care of her brother who was a teacher and lived in the school quarters nearby. As you could imagine, what I had desired for a long time had turned up unexpectedly. Once in the custody of my uncle, I did not know how to begin. By coincidence, I noticed that the headmaster of the school had a disability in his right leg. This gave me confidence to approach him about my education interests. He entered his office and came out with four exercise books, two pens and a pencil. Handing them over to me, he wished me hard work and success.
I benefitted from the diversity of skills earned through my non-formal educational encounters. I was too advanced for pre-primary and grade one class and enrolled in grade two. Even then, I always led in academic performance. My non-formal education both sharpened my academic abilities, and imparted the requisite social skills to deal with the bullying expected in a typical mainstream setting. When I sat for the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) in 1993, I emerged as the best candidate in the school with a total of 8 aggregates (2 Maths, 2 English, 2 Science, and 2 Social Studies) hence, Super Grade 1.
I am now qualified with a Diploma in Community Based Rehabilitation (Kyambogo University, Uganda), a Bachelors in Adult and Community Education (BACE) (Makerere University, Uganda), and a Masters in Educational Planning, Economics and International Development (MA EPEID) (Institute of Education, University of London, UK).
The success of any education experience of a person with disabilities depends majorly on pre-vocation and social skills developed. However, for children with severe disabilities, this takes longer to actualise; hence, more time is needed at home before school enrolment. However, these children keep growing out of school which creates a challenge for eventual enrolment. Home-based non-formal education could be exploited to fill the gap as was the case in my personal journey through education.
The child-to-child approach was developed by the Child-to-Child Trust. It enables students to take an active role in their learning and the learning of other children. It encourages their participation in the promotion of health and wellbeing. Children are provided with training to develop skills and knowledge to share what they have learned with other children.
The approach is based on an understanding that children learn when they are active and that they love to take responsibility. It can be adapted to different contexts and used to deliver a wide variety of challenges. Child-to-Child’s website provides a wealth of information, including details of using the child-to-child approach in early childhood education, and of the ‘step approach’, which encourages children to identify problems in their environment and develop action plans to solve them. See: www.childtochild.org.uk