Scarcity of resources hampers education for visually impaired

Notwithstanding the progress made so far by the Rwandan government to promote inclusive education in higher learning education, Janvier Igirubuntu’s education journey has not been easy. He became visually impaired when he was in primary school and has always found it hard to study.

“I lost hope in life after becoming visually impaired,” he said. “It took me time to realise that life could go on, despite disability.”

It was not until his family found an inclusive school that he encountered other children with visual impairments. The primary school he attended had few teaching materials but when Igirubuntu enrolled in secondary school at HVP Gatagara, an inclusive school in Rwamagana district’s Eastern Province, he breathed a sigh of relief. Almost everything was there, from Braille machines to reading documents, to infrastructure and qualified staff. At last, Igirubuntu found the courage to study hard and set his hopes on a university scholarship like other students from his school.

Hard work pays off

After completing secondary school, he was one of the few visually impaired who got a scholarship and enrolled at the University of Rwanda. He is currently a third-year student pursuing journalism and communication at the Huye district-based College of Arts and Social Sciences. Igirubuntu is one of 16 visually impaired students currently admitted to the University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Social Sciences.

Being a university student is not without its challenges. “The first challenge we face at university is stigma. At first, very few people in my class thought that we could study together. They feared talking to me and none of them thought we could belong in the same working group. They thought that I was inept and that I would be a burden to them,” he said. Lecturers also seemed to be worried about how they could help.

As if that were not enough, students with visual impairment lament that they don’t have enough required didactic materials that help them access courses unhindered.

“Our writing is called Braille which we read while using our fingers. We write using specific machines that need special software and reader machines which are costly,” he said. “Some of the materials we have here at university are scarce and outdated,” he added.

Igirubuntu said that, sometimes, he needs support and depends on his peers to help him. Such support, he said, includes helping him go through notes, reading for him or just helping him to get the summary of the offered courses.

At the College of Arts, there is one resource room and one staff member who assists them daily. This person makes sure lecture notes, tests, exams and continuous assessments are translated into Braille.

“Sometimes, we don’t get notes on time to study well ahead of exams; and when tests and exams are translated on time, it is hard to get marks [at the same time as] others’ results are released because of the process and lack of resources,” he explained.

“It is hard for us to follow courses because, in most cases, lecturers use PowerPoint documents to teach courses; sometimes we fail to participate in classes and it becomes worse when there is an improvised test or assessment,” he said.

Frederic Habarugira, who oversees visually impaired students at the college and is also visually impaired, says that students with visual impairments need more support and have been asking the university for help for some time.

“The resource room that we have has one machine called an embosser and it is used to transcribe notes into Braille. That machine is run by one person and should serve all 16 students. This is hardly possible, and we appeal for more support to get more resources, both materials and human, for us to be able to run smoothly,” said Habarugira, a third-year social work student.

“The current resources are limited and outdated, which results in delays in getting learning materials and affects our performance,” he said.

Long road to inclusive education

According to Emmanuel Ndayisaba, the executive secretary of the National Council of Persons with Disabilities in Rwanda, the lack of didactic materials is not exclusive to the College of Arts and Social Sciences. It is also an issue in other colleges where students with disabilities are enrolled.

“We know that the journey towards inclusive education is long, and we are pushing the ministry of education and the University of Rwanda to put in greater effort to support that journey. We are aware that the didactic materials for visually impaired persons are not enough, and we hope that the government will hear our concerns and address them,” Ndayisaba said.

Dr Alphonse Muleefu, the principal of the University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Social Sciences, says the university has been doing all it can to promote inclusive education and a lot has been achieved so far.

“Didactic materials are never enough, but we have been working on this to ensure that the basics are there to allow students with visual impairments to learn smoothly. We make sure that every student is supported, including those who need special attention. We have been championing inclusive education and we hope that more materials will be available in the future,” he told University World News.

As part of the efforts to promote inclusive education, the ministry of education has set up a school for inclusive education at university level. Based in the University of Rwanda’s College of Education, the school trains people on taking care of students with different disabilities. The university has also appointed one staff member trained in inclusive education at each of its six colleges to take care of persons with disability and assist in addressing all the issues they face.