According to Unicef in 2014, an estimated 2.5 million children live with some form of disability in Uganda. Only about 9 percent of school-aged children with disabilities attend primary school (the national average is 92 percent). Of those 9 percent, only about two percent graduate to secondary level.
School curriculum structured specifically for children with disabilities is extremely rare in Uganda. There is a significant breakdown between the policies created by the government on behalf of children with disabilities and the implementation of those frameworks into school programs throughout the country. The reasons for this are many, including discrimination toward children with disabilities, along with corruption, selfishness and greed on all levels, limited human resources, capital and assets, and a lack of knowledge on how to address their needs, among others.
The government has introduced an approach to special education called ‘Inclusive Education,’ which includes training teachers, modifying the curriculum, improving the facilities and environment, and providing assistive devices for those who need them, but most often, this too fails. While schools can request a formal program to the Ministry of Education, the expenses are costly, and such programs don’t materialize, especially for the poor.
At St. John’s Primary (the Ugandan government school where we work), there is no formal program for special education, and a lack of special education teachers. The school previously had more students with special needs, but many of them dropped out because they were unable to learn. There are currently over 20 students with disabilities, including mild to severe mental retardation, children who are lame, and children with vision issues, not including those with unidentified learning disabilities and other physical handicaps.
Our cooperative, Lawrence Ssemakula, is an extremely passionate and gifted schoolteacher. He also has a certification in Special Education. He and his wife, Josephine, who is also a teacher, are deeply concerned for the well-being of their students, which is uncommon in Uganda. They are consistently looking out for those students who have special needs, whether they need medical attention, or extra attention in or out of the classroom. Lawrence regularly makes home visits to learn more about his students’ lives and look for ways to help.
During a recent trip to Uganda, Corey Foster, a student at the Institute for G.O.D. in Nashville, and a licensed Elementary Education and Deaf Education teacher, had the opportunity to work alongside Lawrence where he teaches and help meet the needs of the students with disabilities there. She wrote the following reflection on her experience with one student in particular.
This is Nalubega Jessica. She is a student at St. John’s Primary School in Kabonge, Uganda, but she is not a child. She is much closer to my age (32), but endured an unknown disease as a child, leaving her disabled, both physically and cognitively. Her speech was severely affected and continues to be a struggle for her. As a vulnerable adult, the headmaster has agreed for many years to allow Jessica to continue coming to school. The safety of school prevents her from the risk of rape or other harm she could endure in the village. Jessica loves school and being with people. She lights up the room and cares deeply for her classmates.
I spent time with her every day that I was at St. John’s and learned parts of her story from various teachers. On my last full day in Uganda, I had the opportunity to visit Jessica’s home and meet her mother along with Lawrence. As we sat and listened to her stories and asked questions, she told us that Jessica was born during the war, sometime around 1985. She has eight children, Jessica the sixth. After Jessica’s illness hit and her needs became more constant, their marriage struggled and her mother had to leave their father to find a new life back in her home village nearby the school. She never remarried, but worked hard digging to provide for her family. Despite her age and decreasing energy, she continues to provide for them today.
As I traveled on foot on the same paths that Jessica and her nieces travel every day to school, and as I continue to process my time with her and her family, I promised the Lord that my work and studies will always hold Jessica and students like her in my heart. I pray that God will continue to give me direction through his word to offer hope to those who have been given no significance according to the eyes of the world. I am confident that God’s kingdom here on earth can provide a better way for Jessica. And I will always remember Lawrence’s encouraging words as we continue to encounter these stories: “May we always seek to help them find rest in the Lord amidst the chaos that exists in the world.”
Corey and Lawrence, both excellent teachers, enthusiastic about educating children, often discussed school, students, and special needs. While Lawrence has the desire to teach children with disabilities, which drove him to obtain his special education license, he isn’t equipped, with the staff or resources, to fully implement his education. He works in an incredibly difficult government school system, having been taught theories that aren’t readily duplicable in rural village classrooms. He carries a lot of weight as one of the primary schoolteachers at St. John’s. Though he isn’t yet able to do everything he’d like to for those with special needs, they have definitely been better cared for since Lawrence began teaching at the school. His presence is a huge step toward offering life to students with disabilities.