In Collaboration with UNITY, MOES Set to Launch Special Needs Education Policy

November 29, 2011


Functional assessment tests the limits.

Children often overcome many obstacles to learning in a developing country such as overcrowded classrooms, not having the latest textbooks or access to technology or challenges at home. For disabled children, these obstacles can become real barriers that leave them behind. Children with disabilities too often are seen as not interested in learning.

Uganda, with support from USAID’s UNITY project, is taking pioneering steps to reach out to children with special learning needs. Tall and slender in statute, Martin Omagor, the Commissioner of Special Needs and Inclusive Education at the Uganda Ministry of Education and Sports, calls himself a kind of ‘father of special needs [education] in Uganda.’ A native of Uganda’s northeastern Karamoja area, Omagor began his career there as a young tutor. He notes that he was fortunate to be placed in a school where the student body included blind children. Though he had no specialized training to work with disabled children, he watched as teachers struggled to teach them without the necessary resources. He took an interest in them and brought his guitar to school so that they could learn to appreciate music.

Without appropriate help, many disabled children fall behind and, discouraged by repeated failure, dropout of school altogether. Some families deliberately keep their special needs children at home to protect them from ridicule. These children are the most likely to be unemployed, marginalized and they are especially vulnerable to being lured into drugs, and exposed to HIV/AIDS.

“I don’t know how much energy I used shouting about the urgency for a special needs policy,” said Omagor. When he raised the issue at a meeting with international donors, USAID responded. The Creative-implemented UNITY project helped Omagor realize his vision of going beyond small isolated efforts by NGOs or church groups. “You could find bits and pieces of so-called special needs in one district and then another, but there has not been a full-fledged program that is institutionalized and that is mainstreamed in the Ministry of Education and Sports, aimed at providing special needs education services throughout Uganda,” said Patrick Bananuka, UNITY’s institutional sustainability adviser. “One of the things that UNITY has done is to support the Ministry’s implementation of a series of initiatives that has helped to streamline special needs education services,” said Bananuka.

Partnering with the Ministry, UNITY helped create policy guidelines for providing services to children with disabilities. The draft policy is currently under review. Prior to these guidelines, donors lacked a common framework. The focus is on helping school to enable all children to participate in the teaching and learning process. The policy looks at teacher training, recruitment, curriculum adaptation and how children can be identified who have barriers to learning and identifies appropriate interventions for special needs children. This includes provisions for learners with physical disabilities, visual impairment, hearing impairment to allow these children to gain the necessary skills to enable them to be full participants as citizens of Uganda.

The UNITY project’s support for the Ministry’s curriculum reform agenda has shifted Uganda’s approach from subject based curriculum to one of themes. While these reforms resulted in increased learning achievements for mainstream children, the project team found that children with learning barriers were losing out on the benefits of the reforms.

With support from UNITY, the Ministry is further adapting the ‘thematic’ curriculum so that learners with barriers could similarly improve their literacy and numeracy skills. Bananuka explains, “For example in the thematic curriculum, the teacher might begin a lesson by involving learners in singing. But, if you have learners who cannot sing because they are mute, what happens is the adapted curriculum helps the teacher to know what to do in such a situation, to derive another activity that allows them to participate. So the curriculum goes over activities that teachers do in class, it looks at the teaching and learning aids, the language used and the lesson plans and assessment rubrics for learners to gauge their level of participation.”

The UNITY project also helped the Ministry introduce a functional assessment model to identify barriers to learning indicating the degree of difficulty from mild to profound impairment. Giving an example, Bananuka explains, “Does the child have a hearing impairment, is it mild, moderate or severe? We’re not looking at a clinical assessment that requires a doctor or laboratory; we are applying a pedagogical methodology. The moderate and mild impairments are difficult to identify, but they are the biggest number in our classes. These children represent greatest numbers who are kept from fully benefiting from school unless interventions are in place.”

Helping teachers to be aware of learning barriers is also helping to change Ugandans’ attitudes about special needs children. By employing skilled interventions, teachers find that these children are able to perform well. The proposed special needs policy includes guidance and counseling focusing on HIV/AIDS. The manual on HIV/AIDS adapted for children with special needs with support from USAID-UNITY provides information to them in a way that takes prevailing social norms into account, enabling them to protect themselves. In short, says Bananuka, the special needs policy has revolutionized the way government and planners look at learning barriers. “What was stopping this government, this country from moving ahead in this area was the lack of a policy. What was stopping our teachers and other players from moving ahead was they did not have skills. They did not have information or an adapted curriculum. So with these interventions, Uganda moved on this issue, the sky is the limit, it is a very big achievement.”

Omagor, noting the value of the flexible nature of interactions between USAID’s UNITY project and the Ministry said, “Because of the meetings, the ongoing interface among the players, there was a connection, a closeness of what was happening on the ground, we were partners. At the end these are equally all of our achievements.”

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