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Special education for Down Syndrome students in Kenya
Kait Bolongaro 17.11.2015
Despite changes to Kenya’s education system, Down Syndrome students in public schools still face a different reality than their private school counterparts. Kait Bolongaro reports from Nairobi.
The Machakos Special Unit for the Mentally Disabled sits at the end of a dirt road, 63 kilometers south of Nairobi.
Inside the one-room school house, 16 students sit in four rows in the classroom. In the back row, Albert Mwendwa sits quietly. The 26-year-old is calm compared to his rambunctious schoolmates. He is shy and quickly hides his face behind his hands when he knows he is attracting attention.
« Mwendwa, the boy with Down syndrome, is quite different from the others, » said Croccociscus Njeru, one of his teachers. « He is not violent. In most cases, he’s calm and whatever you tell him to do he listens and tries to do it. »
Mwendwa stares at the blackboard as two volunteer teaching assistants explain the reading exercises. ‘Today is a cloudy day,’ he repeats. Mwendwa follows his lessons as closely as possible, despite the fact that he cannot read or write.
He may not be able to write his name, but Mwendwa speaks Kamba, the local language, and some English. He can recite the alphabet and numbers by heart. Although his green school uniform isn’t new, his clothes are clean and tidy.
Mwendwa is an unusual case at the Machakos Special Unit. Technically, he is older than the average school child, but since his level is similar to the other students, he has been allowed to stay in school longer.
« When the children are brought in we normally take what we call a case history of each child either from the parent or guardian, » explained Esther Maluki, the current head of the Assessment Center. « Combined with the different materials we use and our knowledge, we are able to assess the disability the child has. »
« I don’t know much about the family, but when I saw the mother, I didn’t think the family looked financially stable, » said Njeru.
Mwendwa’s teachers have noticed that he is quite good with his hands. He is a meticulous cleaner. The school would like to provide him a vocational training course in gardening so he can transition into a job after school.
The Machackos Special Unit
Like Mwendwa, most learners with Down syndrome attend public institutions. Students at the Machakos Special Unit don’t pay school fees as public education is funded by the government. Non-profit organizations from other countries provide funding when the school lacks resources.
Croccociscus Njeru, a teacher at Machakos Special Unit, says it takes a bit of ingenuity to ensure students have the materials they need.
« We bridge the gap between our facilities and those in private schools by improvising, » she said.
The teachers use the materials available to create instructional tools. Njeru explains that balls can be made from polythene bags and skipping ropes and hoops can be fashioned from branches.
« Private schools may have better resources than public schools, but the public system has an advantage over private in that we have more qualified manpower, » says Grace Kyambi, a lecturer at the Kenya Institute of Special Education.
Special education in Kenya
The Kenyan government updated their policy for people living with disabilities when the constitution was changed in 2011. The new legislation includes a section for disabilities and allows for tax-free benefits and bonuses.
« I must say that the Kenya government has put disability in position, » said Amar Panesar, founder of Circle Academy, a day school for children with disabilities.
For Lucy Mombo of the Down Syndrome Society of Kenya, the policy may be perfectly worded, but its implementation has been disappointing.
« [Kenya] has a very good policy in terms of acceptance and inclusion, but in practice, it’s not a reality, » she said.
In the Kenyan public school system, children with Down Syndrome usually attend mainstream schools. For certain subjects such as music or vocational classes, some students with mild handicaps are integrated into classes with regular students.
However, people with physical and intellectual disabilities are most often educated separately from the general population in facilities called special units. These classes are held in their own building on the same grounds as the regular school.
Life in a private school
Unlike Mwendwa, Yusuf Dida attends Circle Academy in Nairobi. His daily schedule is full of activities, including music lessons, swimming and literacy and computer training. The lessons are tailored to his needs and designed to help him continue developing.
Yusuf also speaks fluent Swahili and English. His mother, Estail Ibrahim Dida, even hopes that he will pursue a career in information technology.
Circle Academy is a private school for children with special needs in the Kilimani area of Nairobi. The academy was founded in 2000 by Amar Panesar, who remains the school’s director.
The school’s philosophy is one of personalized education to help students reach their full potential. Class sizes are small and limited to 12 children. Student to teacher ratios average at two to one, with most of the students given individual attention throughout the day. (…)