Wearing a pink gomesi-material-like skirt and a grey T-shirt, the 16-year-old Kauma is a deaf pupil from Walukuba West primary school in Jinja. Like many others, she travelled to Mukono to celebrate the International Deaf Awareness week at Mukono Boarding primary school, on October 29.
With no idea why the able-bodied children are dancing themselves lame, Kauma is praying and hoping to excel in her primary leaving examinations she recently completed.
Speaking through a sign language interpreter, Kauma, the first born of nine children, reveals that she was not born deaf, but suffered the calamity when she was struck by malaria. An illness that lasted six months finally claimed her sense of hearing at the age of eight years.
Not knowing what is going on around her is not her only ordeal. She also struggles to communicate to her parents and siblings.
“Sometimes I take months without talking to my parents because they do not know sign language; so, I try to use my young brothers, who also gamble to help me tell my parents what I want,” Kauma narrates through an interpreter.
To compound the situation, Kauma has been sharing a class with other pupils who do not share her disability, yet she is not catered for. Instead, she has had to study by reading the movement of her teachers’ lips and body language.
“The teachers do not know sign language and those who know do not use it, because majority of my classmates are not deaf. So, the teachers prefer to go with the majority,” Kauma continues.
Just to keep up with her classmates, Kauma has had to spend more time reading on her own. Her biggest challenge remains mathematics, which she cannot read and understand on her own.
Even during the interview, one senses that Kauma appears to be losing hope each passing day, she wonders what lies in her future. Even at home, Kauma finds her parents worse than her teachers, as they tend to treat her siblings ahead of her. The wait to have her scholastic needs met is particularly troubling to her.
“My father gives all my brothers and sisters pocket money but he has refused to give me. I don’t know why and this makes me feel like I’m useless to the family and need not to go to school,” Kauma laments.
Kauma fears that her dream of becoming an international interpreter could be lost unless someone comes along to assist her and other deaf children.
INCLUSIVE LEARNING CHALLENGES
Kauma is not alone; David Balikanda is 17 years old and has pursued primary education since 2003 (12 years ago) at Kyomya primary school in Jinja. Unlike Kauma, whose parents make some provision to her life, Balikanda is living at his aunt’s mercy. Like Kauma, Balikanda hopes to pass his primary leaving examinations this time round.
He has also shared a class with non-disabled pupils, learning by studying his teachers’ lips. Balikanda says he wants to become a mechanical engineer or a technician. In his primary school, he suffered from discrimination and abuse by fellow pupils in class, who were unwilling to share a desk with him.
Consequently, he hopes to join a vocational school with special attention for the deaf, rather than continuing with secondary education. Those two learners are suffering under a widely-popular system called inclusive learning, where pupils with disabilities are taught together with the able-bodied, in a bid to get them used to a likely scenario in the workplace.
Hanifa Nalwoga, the project coordinator for the education and empowerment of deaf children and youths in Jinja, explains that the deaf are taught alongside able-bodied pupils due to inadequate teaching facilities.
“People keep blaming us for not caring about the deaf but these pupils need special schools and the special schools opened by government keep running short of teachers; so, we are left with no option but gamble,” she says. “[We have to find] a way out to see that they acquire some knowledge; that is why we keep promoting them even when they have failed a particular class.”
Nalwoga explains that despite sharing a class with other pupils, the deaf need to do extra reading to catch up with their able-bodied classmates, before adding that not all is lost.
“Some deaf pupils have the ability to learn new concepts by simply reading the movement of the teachers’ lips,” she adds.
However, according to Ambrose Murangira, the executive director of the Uganda National Association of the Deaf (Unad), the move to teach the disabled along with the able-bodied pupils was prompted by a shortage of funds to support special-needs teachers.
“The deaf have always been comforted with empty promises ... it is time to raise the pay of special-needs teachers since they are in high demand,” he says.
Murangira adds that there is a severe shortage of special-needs teachers and a lack of initiative by the government to prioritise sign language in learning institutions and workplaces. He wants more support in this area.
Murangira is particularly disappointed in the speaker of parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, who in 2013 pledged to have the PWDs Bill passed into law before the end of the 9th parliament, has failed them.
The bill had, among other things, called for improved access to information, an inclusive education system and health services. He says they have shifted their attention to the Uganda Advocacy Agenda 2016-2021, which they hope will give them an opportunity to meet their goals in the 10th parliament.
In her defence, Kadaga last month pledged to have the bill passed by the House before the expiry of this parliament’s term.
“I will ensure that these matters are fast-tracked so that they are handled either just before or soon after the elections (in February 2016),” she said, to muted applause.
Murangira’s hopes are in agreement with those of Kauma and Balikanda, who hope that one day the government will create an enabling environment for children with disabilities to continue with education.
In particular, Balikanda, who would like to study engineering in the future, faces a tough hurdle ahead. Apart from Kyambogo University, which is blessed with a faculty of special needs and rehabilitation, all other tertiary institutions are poorly-equipped to train students with disabilities. Coincidentally, officials at the education ministry say no student with visual or audio disabilities has ever applied for a tertiary programme in the sciences.
So, it is hard to tell what would happen if Balikanda obtained the basic marks to study for a certificate in engineering, next year. As for Kauma, the whole idea of studying remains dependent on whether her parents will agree to fund her further education.
Our efforts to reach them in Walukuba, Jinja, are yet to yield fruit. As the celebrations in Mukono ended, the two could only look on, wondering if their fate would mirror that of the football team, made of deaf players, which defeated their able-bodied counterparts, mostly drawn from schools in Mukono and Jinja, by 2-0.