Kitty Williams is an Inclusive Education specialist focused on inclusive education in Kenya.
In a world that values being educated so highly, why do some of us flourish in acquiring skills and knowledge while others get left behind? This question has ignited numerous debates on education, ranging from issues of access, to quality, and purpose. It is not my intent to answer these questions, but to focus on one key cause of ‘getting left behind’; having a disability.
The Kenyan National Survey for Persons with Disabilities 2008 found that 4.6% of Kenyans experience some form of disability, comparing favorably to the WHO’s estimate of 10% globally. Children with disabilities are often stigmatized and excluded from education due to a mixture of fear, shame, and ignorance. In addition, inadequate policy and government resources lead to an educational environment that is inadequately designed to provide for those children.
To address the marginalization of children with disabilities, and its limiting outcomes, the Kenyan government committed themselves to Inclusive Education. This is a process of addressing and responding to the diversity of educational needs, by ensuring access to learning for ALL groups of children within mainstream education. Inclusion has been advocated as the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all.
Being an emphatic advocate for educating children with disabilities, I was fascinated to see how Kenya was rising to the Inclusive Education challenge. Kenya’s updated Special Needs Education (SNE) Policy 2009, has been the driving force behind the transition. There is no doubt, that in its early stages of implementation the SNE policy is working tirelessly to actively include a greater number of disabled children in education. Progress has been made in providing specialized equipment, creating environments without physical barriers, and building capacity by incentivizing staff to attain Special Needs Diplomas. Nevertheless, these achievements are mainly taking place in Special Schools. Strengthening these cannot be undervalued, however: Is the early focus on Special Schools neglecting the real purpose of inclusive education?
My recent research in Kenya, suggested it might be and highlighted three broader challenges currently hindering inclusive education in Kenya:
1 | Design and Focus of the Kenyan Education System
The Kenya education system is based on the ideals of the human capital theory, in that more education and higher education attainment leads to higher economic returns. The focus on the acquisition of the values, attitudes, and skills fundamental to Inclusive Education is therefore often neglected. While the teachers I spoke to hardly ever questioned their given curriculum, they told me that they struggled delivering the assigned information to children with disabilities in the classroom, due to large class sizes and lack of appropriate SNE training.
Of course there are solutions, and the SNE policy is fighting to implement some worthwhile interventions. However, I can't help thinking that the singular focus on educational attainment is holding the system back from being inclusive. Children with disabilities, specifically mental and intellectual disabilities, thrive in more practical areas of learning: coming up with new and innovative ways of solving real life problems, expressing their talents through arts, technology and vocally. Indeed, I can’t imagine that Van Gogh ever excelled in math exams, or that Helen Keller was given the space to express her opinions. In modern society we rely on exchanging ideas and skills to solve problems not recalling complex and irrelevant equations, or facts.
2 | Identification and Assessment of Children with Disabilities: The Education, Assessment and Resource Centers (EARC)
The EARC initiative has been a fantastic step forward in providing assessment and placement of children with disabilities, however, there is still a long way to go. Firstly, owing to financial restrictions, EARC officers no longer visit schools. At a rural school in Naivasha I was told that to take a child to the local EARC would constitute a 2 hour car journey, only possible on a Thursday morning when the EARC officer was available. Consequently, the cost for many families was too high. In addition, there was a lack of appropriate technologies and capacity for assessment. EARC officers discussed that the assessment for children with auditory impairments was conducted with out-dated technology that required exceptional attention to detail and time. They also noted how capacity was vital for the EARCs full realization, but with inadequate government incentives for the acquisition of a diploma in Special Needs Assessment, trained professionals were few and far between.
Appropriate assessment procedures are vital for children with disabilities. Without these they are often negatively labeled (stupid, crazy, or lazy); they are neglected access to vital special need initiatives; given no space to accept and understand their disability, nor advocate for support to achieve their educational goals.
3 | Social Acceptance of Children with Disabilities.
Although, all the educational professionals I met had exceptionally encouraging views of inclusion, discussing the importance and actively seeking ways and information on how to achieve this, their experiences about how their wider community understood disability were less promising. They recalled that a number of parents still held that children with disabilities were burdens, and couldn’t be educated, and these parents chose not to seek vital support from the EARC or local school, keeping their children at home, uneducated and away from the prying eyes of society.
A Future for Inclusive Education?
The above discussions lead to important questions for Inclusive Education in Kenya.
- Would a reconceptualization of mainstream educational goals, under a new focus on wellbeing, rather than economic returns, improve the chances for inclusive education?
- Would an increase in funds for technical aspects of the SNE policy, such as EARCs be a key driving force?
- Could improvements in advocacy, change perceptions of disability and facilitate and easier transition for children with disabilities from their home environment to school? Or, indeed, do all these aspects need to be given equal priority?
The fact that these questions are being asked by educational professionals from all over SNE in Kenya is encouraging. These questions fuel the work of some exceptional organizations in the field of SNE, who are working amiably to strengthen inclusion: Leonard Cheshire, Kenya Society for the Blind and MOCEDET. I believe that answering these questions, is the next and greatest challenge for inclusive education in Kenya.