All students must learn about inclusive education – Activist

Students with disabilities in Cameroonian universities face numerous challenges. Even in some of the most prestigious higher education institutions in the country, such as the University of Buea, the students who have managed to muscle their way through the schooling system to gain access to universities face problems ranging from ill-equipped facilities, ignorant staff and societal stigma.

Kesah Princely, a blind PhD student in conflict resolution at the University of Buea, currently leads the university’s association of persons with disabilities through which he advocates for their rights and fights for their inclusion in the university.

In an interview with University World News, he revealed the challenges faced by students with disabilities as well as his efforts in advocating for an inclusive learning environment.

UWN: You have been studying at the University of Buea for six years now. As a student with a disability, what has your learning experience been so far?

KP: It has not been a bed of roses. I enrolled in the University of Buea in 2016 as the first ever student with a visual impairment to study journalism in the 27 years or so in which the department of journalism and mass communication has existed. It was not easy.

First and foremost, some of my lecturers discouraged me, saying I would not graduate. I don’t know whether or not they meant I lacked the intelligence to assimilate the knowledge they were giving out. One of them even said, if the department let me graduate out of sympathy, I would not be useful to the job market. In fact, this lecturer accused me of being a burden to other people’s children when I told him I was working in collaboration with my sighted peers on my assignments.

That was something that could have really deterred me from moving on with my studies. But I took it as a challenge and continued studying. I finally graduated as the third-best student in my class.

UWN: You are the president of the University of Buea Association of Students with Disabilities (UBDSA). What is the mission of this association?

KP: UBDSA advocates for a conducive study environment for learners with varying disabilities, including people with albinism, visual impairment, speech and hearing impairment, mobility impairment or any other type of disability you can think of. Our mission is to advocate for better studying conditions for these students.

We go beyond that, because we also lobby for organisations to help these students with disabilities with didactic materials so that they can catch up with studies. The education of a student with a disability costs more than that of a student without a disability. Also, the association is some sort of a middleman between the students with disabilities and the administration of the University of Buea.

So, we make sure they channel their problems to the authorities and we follow up to ensure that those problems are solved. We also ensure that their rights are respected in line with provisions laid down by the government and other international conventions.

We only do so in our own little way because we do not have full powers. But we have been lobbying, advocating and using the channels at our disposal to see that the conditions of these students are ameliorated.

UWN: What motivated you to begin advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities and their inclusion in education?

KP: Advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities is just like a responsibility to me. You derive the greatest joy when you are able to give back to your community.

I come from a community of persons with disabilities in Cameroon and this is a community which has been neglected a lot. Over the years, my own experiences have shown that persons with disabilities need to be fighters; they need to be soldiers – on their own – to be able to survive.

With discrimination, stigmatisation, social exclusion and all other ills you can think of, I deemed it important to begin advocating for them. Education is the key. Persons with disabilities cannot improve their situations if they do not champion themselves. That is why I believe formal education is the best tool that persons with disabilities can have to advocate for a society void of disability exclusion.

UWN: As President of UBDSA, you interact with students with disabilities frequently. What are some of the challenges they face in the University of Buea?

KP: The challenges are quite enormous. The library is inaccessible to blind students because there are no books in Braille, nor are there audio recorded materials. Infrastructure-wise, it is also not accessible to people in wheelchairs. Some of these students with disabilities are not even aware of the school library, just because things are not well explained to them.

Also, the curriculum is not well designed to suit learners with different abilities. It becomes very difficult for us with visual impairment to comprehend some key courses, especially those which have to do with images. Photojournalism is an example. In other areas, like mathematics and diagrams, the lecturers lack the requisite skills to explain the concepts to learners with visual impairment.

The students also want their rights to be respected. Those who possess disability cards need to be exempt from paying school fees and other levies. The 2010 law on the welfare of persons with disabilities in Cameroon, whose text of application was published in 2018, is very clear on this.

Good enough, rigorous advocacy led the University of Buea to exempt students with disabilities from paying fees. But if you don’t get a Grade Point Average (GPA) of two and above, you’ll not be exempt. There’s a student with hearing impairment who was denied exemption last academic year, because he failed to get a GPA of two.

His excuse was that the teachers were not inclusive enough and he found it difficult understanding lectures due to the lack of sound language interpreters. Moreover, during exams, students with visual impairment are hardly provided with Braille papers to write, whereas other students are given writing kits.

Another difficulty is that persons with visual impairment only get their exam results about one month after the other students must have had theirs. This is quite bad because they might need to go for re-sit sessions but would be unable to do so, because they did not get their results in time.

UWN: How do you address the challenges raised by these students with disabilities?

KP: It has not been easy, but we do the little we can. Sometimes, I have to go from office to office, to talk with those who matter. There is a lot of bureaucracy. Sometimes, you cannot even meet the vice-chancellor himself, because he’s the big president up there. You would not imagine that, in my two years as President of UBDSA, I’ve not had the opportunity to meet the vice-chancellor [Professor Ngomo Horace Manga] one-on-one.

They rather ask us to write documents and drop at them at the secretariat. It’s not been easy, but one thing which has kept us moving is that we also lobby with local and international organisations to support these students. We equally go to different classes, sensitising students without disabilities to welcome their peers with disabilities. We teach them that disability is not contagious. They are all brothers and sisters and the fraternity needs to be upheld. The challenges are just so many, but we are trying to address them in our own little way.

UWN: You’re not only involved in advocating for the rights of students with disabilities but persons with disabilities in Cameroon as a whole. Tell us more about your out-of-school advocacy.

KP: Through my foundation; the Foundation for the Inclusion and Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, we advocate to ensure that persons with disabilities live comfortably in their different communities.

We also ensure that these persons have access to livelihood activities such as petty trading, to reduce begging in the streets. We encourage those without formal education to learn crafts to fend for themselves. The foundation also teaches them their basic rights and tries to ensure that inclusion does not only remain on paper in Cameroon.

Meanwhile, to ensure that things go well, we organise seminars, workshops, door-to-door campaigns and market sensitisation. We also engage in social media advocacy and sometimes speak on local media platforms.

I was recently involved in a project sponsored by the US Embassy in Cameroon to train 140 youth leaders on leadership, to enable them to champion disability advocacy in their different communities across the country. These are the activities we carry out to ensure that persons with disabilities also have a place in the contemporary world.

UWN: Do you have any suggestions to improve the learning conditions of students with disabilities in the University of Buea and other higher institutions of learning in Cameroon?

KP: The campus shuttle should be made free for persons with disabilities, while special buses should also be provided for wheelchair users. For now, they cannot use those that exist.

I also think the library needs to be made accessible. Meanwhile, educated persons with disabilities who have degrees should be employed by the government to teach in the different professional disciplines which they master. I know many PhD holders who are at home and jobless.

The government needs to employ these people, so they can set the standards. I would also advise universities to modify their infrastructure for better inclusion in order to make students with disabilities study in a convivial environment.

In addition, sessions need to be organised in universities especially during matriculation and graduation ceremonies, to school the university community on the existence of this special group of students.

Above all, the course ‘Special Education 201’ should be made compulsory for every student. It’s a course on the basics of special education. If it’s made one of the university requirements, we can make this dream of inclusion a reality.

Actual statistics about disabled students in the higher education system are not readily available. With regard to the number of persons with disabilities in the country, a 2011 survey found that 5.4% of the population had at least one disability. The population at the time was about 21 million people.