The world recently commemorated the Global Action Week on Education, and the theme in Uganda was: Inclusive education for children with disabilities (CWDs)–equal rights, equal opportunity: education and disability.
While the theme is enhancing inclusive education for CWDs, it is critical to note a recent development – the Makerere University Disability Policy – passed by the University Council in March this year. It was passed after over four years of engagement between the university leadership and several students with disability activist groups.
This policy has been celebrated by students with disabilities, university lecturers, disabled persons organisations (DPOs) and development partners such as the Disability Rights Fund. It is expected to address the numerous challenges students with disabilities have experienced at Makerere University since its inception, but mostly since 1998 when the university introduced affirmative action for PWDs.
As a result of the affirmative action programme, Makerere admits 64 students with different disabilities, historically the blind and the deaf and more recently the little people, deaf-blind, and albinos. My personal experience in Makerere stretches almost 15 years, first as a law student between 2001 and 2005 – as an aocate for the rights of students with disabilities- and currently as a representative of the Disability Rights Fund.
As a student, it was next to impossible to access basic university facilities that any other law student could freely access. The faculty did not have a single wheelchair-accessible toilet, and I am not sure they have one yet. Two of the four years of law school were taught in lecture theaters which had over 10 stairs.
The discomfort in being carried up and down on a daily basis was no help to any student in a wheelchair, like me, to focus on their studies. In my fourth year, I decided to enter the class in the morning and leave in the evening – meaning that I did not go out for lunch or for bathroom breaks throughout the day. The library was not only far, but also inaccessible. I went to the library on weekends – with a huge workload to cover.
These are just a few of the many challenges that the new policy aims to address. I have been fortunate enough to have a taste of the implications of lack of accessibility and support services to students with disabilities. I did my masters at Washington College of Law in the United States.
Here, I could access the library online from my room, could get textbooks in soft copies, and had a special office designated to address issues of students with disabilities. When you look at the two transcripts from Makerere University (bachelor’s degree) and Washington College of Law (Master’s degree), you can hardly believe that this was the same student.
One contains an average of “C+” and the other is “A+” grade the difference lies in the support that I received or did not receive at the respective universities. Of course, not so much has changed at Makerere University in the 10 years since I graduated. In some cases, services seem to have deteriorated even further.
The new policy, therefore, is a fulfillment of Uganda’s commitment to respect, promote and fulfill the right to education for all. Uganda ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2008, in addition to a series of international and regional treaties. Such treaties obligate the state to ensure that PWDs study in the same environment as any other student, commonly known as inclusive education.
The state is also expected to ensure availability of teachers who understand the needs of a learner with a disability, appliances like wheelchairs, crutches, white canes, and hearing aids. The CRPD notes that lack of money should not be a justification for the state and other stakeholders not to work towards and providing educational needs of PWDs.
Makerere University is, of course, not the only inaccessible institution in Uganda. My experience at the Law Development Center, where I pursued my Post Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice (2007-2008), was not any better. This means that all public and private institutions of learning should borrow a leaf from Makerere and develop similar policies to address concerns and needs of learners with disabilities.
Makerere must now turn to the more difficult task – implementation of the Disability Policy. Other stakeholders, including government departments in the education and disability sector, development partners, UN agencies, disabled peoples’ organisations and PWDs themselves, all have a role to play to ensure that this policy is implemented.
I hope that by the time I enroll for my PhD at Makerere, there will be no more barriers. Most importantly, I hope that children with disabilities, once they reach university level, will meet a fully-accommodating environment.
The writer is a person with a disability, a rights aocate and the Program Officer for Africa for the Disability Rights Fund.
Source : The Observer