Students with disabilities – Set up by schools to fail?

When Munya Mahiya, then a 15-year-old Zimbabwe schoolboy, had his left leg amputated above the knee in 2009 owing to osteosarcoma, a form of cancer, he feared that his mainstream high school would not take him back and he would miss out on a chance at a normal academic education.

Fortunately, he was wrong. Despite his being technically disabled, Zengeza High School in Chitungwiza, a town about 35 minutes’ drive out of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, allowed him to return.

After repeating two years of his ‘O’ level programme, having missed a significant portion of his schooling owing to hospitalisation and chemotherapy, he was able to complete high school and ultimately qualify for a MasterCard Foundation scholarship to pursue an undergraduate degree in political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

He is now a committed advocate for disability rights, particularly among students and sports men and women.

Limited opportunities

Mahiya’s experience is not typical. Opportunities beyond secondary school for many children with disabilities are limited, he told University World News. Ironically, he said part of the problem lies with the approach taken by schools geared towards students with disabilities.

“When I think back, I realise that if I had gone to a school that specialises in the needs of disabled students, I probably wouldn’t have made it as far as I have,” he said. “The type of education that is given to young disabled people in Zimbabwe is different to the type of education afforded to students without disabilities."

Many of the schools for disabled school children in Zimbabwe focus on specific types of disabilities, Mahiya said. For example, King George in Harare caters for the visually impaired; Harare-based Danhiko Project enrols those with physical challenges; Jairos Jiri Naran Centre in Gweru takes in deaf students and Copota in Masvingo teaches the blind.

Many of the specialised schools focus mainly on vocational training for the job market. For example, Danhiko trains students who will head into manufacturing for Bata, Zimbabwe’s biggest shoemaker.

According to Mahiya, the emphasis on vocational training for disabled students prohibits students from pursuing fields they are passionate about.

Vocational training

“Students are taught mainly vocational subjects that will give them jobs in industries like carpentry or menial jobs such as gardening. But what if a young person wants to be a lawyer?” he asked.

While mainstream schools focus on getting students into university where students can make a choice about their own professional careers, those schools – even if they accept disabled learners – are not equipped to deal with specific types of disabilities.

“My disability does not require any special training from teachers, but when you are working with people with hearing or visual impairment, cognitive or learning disabilities, that [lack of training] can be problematic.”

Set up for failure

He said specialised schools are also setting students with disabilities up for failure. “The current labour market doesn’t even guarantee them jobs,” he said.

“Think about the staggering numbers of unemployed in Zimbabwe. Added to this is that disabled students are not necessarily equipped with the tools they need to be integrated into mainstream society, which is another challenge. What is needed is more inclusivity and the educational curricula should be similar in all schools,” he said.

For Mahiya, attending a mainstream school in spite of his disability opened a door to further study opportunities.

He was accepted into the United States Student Achievers Program or USAP, a higher education programme for low-income students, which began in Zimbabwe in 1999 and now has centres in 13 countries around the world including Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Latvia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mongolia, Nigeria, Serbia, South Africa, Uganda and the United Kingdom.

Rebecca Zeigler Mano, director at Education Matters, which runs the USAP in Zimbabwe, helped Mahiya to find universities he could apply to.

“I had known for some time that I had the capability of making it to university but I wasn’t sure if I was good enough for scholarships abroad,” he said.

Global challenges

According to the United Nations, Africa is home to 80 million people living with disabilities. “But, it is not only an African problem,” Mahiya said. “Globally, governments are failing to meet the basic needs – and particularly the educational needs – of its citizens living with disabilities.”

These issues have shaped Mahiya’s advocacy for the rights of persons with disabilities, particularly in education and sports. He is also conducting research on the link between poverty and disability.

“How we look at disability, distinguish different types of disabilities, and what kind of assistance is required for various disabilities will define how the education system can create opportunities for young people who often aren’t included,” said Mahiya.

He called for more organisations to develop opportunities like those created by the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program partnership recently launched between the University of Gondar in Ethiopia and Queen’s University in Canada, which will provide 450 scholarships to talented young people living with disabilities.

He said the partnership will also bring much-needed perspectives to allow the foundation and its partners to better understand and meet the needs of people living with disabilities.

Inclusion as a cultural imperative

“Inclusion is a cultural imperative for us across Africa, because the lives of young people like me are too often intertwined with the threat of poverty, greater risk of contracting HIV-AIDS and of being the survivor of physical or sexual violence," Mahiya said.

“I am conducting research on disability and poverty in the hope of creating a matrix that traces or identifies the ways in which disability and poverty are in some cases correlated. This will be used to identify the disability-to-poverty pipeline or vice versa,” he said.

There is a need for these opportunities, because those of us who are overlooked could be improving the lives of others and making the world a better place, he said.