Segregation: A time to rethink special education institutions

Ramps are absent in many learning institutions. [iStockphoto][iStockphoto]

Re-examining long-held assumptions and ideas can bring small but transformative societal changes. Assumptions can begin with critically thinking about the language we use to describe each other, beliefs that have long guided our actions, or ideas we have inherited over time without critically evaluating their outcomes.

In some cases, the assumptions, ideas, and beliefs were the best we could generate at a given time. However, as the oft-quoted phrase, when we know better, we do better. It is time for us to do better regarding inclusivity in schools.

The term inclusion is ubiquitous in society. The next steps on the inclusion journey calls for action. In Kenya, strides have been made to include people with disabilities, also referred to as 'differently abled', as active participants in different areas of society. Decades of advocacy from disability organisations, faith-based organisations and communities have contributed to the current and continued momentum for the involvement of people with disabilities in societal development.

Legislative mandates such as the 2003 Disabilities Act, the 2010 Constitution, the 2009 Special Needs Education Policy Framework and the 2018 Sector Policy for Learners and Trainees with Disabilities communicate concerted government efforts to increase awareness about people with disabilities and potentially improve their quality of life.

However, one area that could benefit from change as regards to people with disabilities pertains to institutions of learning which are a key engine in the development of society. When it comes to our schools, few well-resourced schools provide students using wheelchairs with ramps to increase access and safety.

However, ramps are absent in many learning institutions, creating physical barriers and denying large populations of students access to various facilities and opportunities. The time for change in eliminating structural barriers cannot be ignored any longer if we, as a country, intend to move towards inclusive practices. Inclusion in general is a journey that requires active involvement from multiple stakeholders, which includes the community, faith-based organisations, the government, grassroots movements and the whole village.

Active involvement also requires an understanding of ideas that propel inclusion versus actions that stall inclusive ideas and practices. Active involvement pushes us to think about the terms that we use to describe categories of people. Active involvement includes creating space that understands one shoe does not fit everyone. For instance, people with disabilities are a diverse population that requires diverse inclusive responses.

Therefore, schools should provide a continuum of services. In Kenya, a continuum of services for students with special needs is already in place at a small scale, with the existence of special schools, special units and special programmes for students with special needs. These continuums of services and settings seek to provide education and related services (e.g., speech therapy, occupational therapy).

As a way of example, we have the Autism Unit at City Primary and the Deaf Unit at Agakhan Primary in Nairobi, both special units in different public schools around the country, Thika School for the Blind, Jacaranda School and so forth.

These schools play a key role in ensuring students with special needs receive educational opportunities in safe environments with trained personnel. One would ask whether these are inclusive settings considering they are schools solely with a population of students with special needs. Another salient case in point is the continued existence of the Dagoretti Special School for students with physical impairments.

Evidently, a physical impairment due to an injury, health condition or extenuating circumstances is not equivalent to a cognitive or functional impairment in all areas. On the surface, this setting like many others may appear to provide specific education opportunities for a certain population of students, a worthwhile endeavour. However, this setting also perpetuates a culture of segregation based on disability.

What then does inclusion call for us to do? Inclusion calls for us to imagine anew. While some students may benefit from receiving special education in these separate settings, more effort is needed in increasing interactions between students in regular schools and developing necessary mechanisms that facilitate inclusion. There is possibility for mutual benefit when students in the special schools interact with students in the regular schools and vice versa. Parallel to this rethinking is the need for schools to increase awareness about special education and practices that promote inclusion in daily interactions and demolish stereotypes that perpetuate deficit thinking.

On the journey towards building inclusive worlds beginning with our learning institutions, questions and challenges abound. For instance, is it possible for schools to create increased opportunities between students in regular schools and special schools? Do we need to reconsider the continued existence of the Dagoretti Special School? Is it time for us to begin the elimination of this institution as we build ramps and create space for students with physical impairments in the regular schools?

Alternatively, can we redesign the school and admit all students with and without physical disabilities? As we build new schools, should there be a requirement to build accessible buildings? Do we need to increase resources in regular schools for early screening, hiring skilled personnel, developing student teams?

Inclusion is a step-by-step process that requires intentional investments over time. Students with disabilities along with their families should have more choices and freedom to enroll their children in different schools not limited to their physical impairment or any other disability.