A Commitment to Inclusive Education for Marginalized Children with Disabilities in Malawi

By: Jorge Manhique and Milika Sakala

Disabled Person’s Organizations (DPOs) in Malawi have been advocating for inclusive education, not only for children with disabilities generally but specifically for the most marginalized children with disabilities, such as those with DeafBlindness and those with Albinism. During the 2018 U.K. Global Disability Summit (GDS18), the Malawi Government committed to improve early identification assessment and interventions for children with disabilities by 2021; to undertake capacity building of teachers on how to manage learners with disabilities at all levels by 2022; and to train caregivers in inclusive early childhood development by 2022.  To make sure these commitments are translated into practice and felt in the lives of persons with disabilities, DPOs are working alongside government to provide support and hold it accountable.

Children with DeafBlindness are among the most marginalized in society and their needs are often ignored in the provision of services, especially in education. A major barrier to inclusive education for children with DeafBlindness is the lack of early identification and intervention processes. Early identification and intervention are key to the stimulation of any residual vision and/or hearing in babies and young children with DeafBlindness and to providing vital communication and mobility skills, as well as basic life skills such as feeding and dressing.  Children with DeafBlindness are less likely to thrive in school if they do not have these basic skills.

Malawian DPO, Visual Hearing Membership Association (VIHEMA) is working on a project supported by the Disability Rights Fund (DRF) in which the main goal is to advocate for the development of an early identification and intervention program for children with DeafBlindness in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) Articles 24 (Education) and 25 (Health). The project aims to ensure that the Malawi National Early Childhood Development Education (ECDE) Policy of 2017 takes these concerns into consideration. To this end, an assessment is underway to review the ECDE Policy to identify gaps for children with DeafBlindness and to draft a report of the findings with clear recommendations. VIHEMA will present the report at a National Symposium co-organized with the national umbrella DPO – the Federation of Disability Organizations in Malawi (FEDOMA). The goal is to convince policymakers of the need to develop early identification programs and to amend the ECDE Policy to make sure it is inclusive of children with DeafBlindness.

Another DRF grantee, Disabled Women in Africa (DIWA), is working to improve data collection tools in schools and to advocate for improved budget allocation to support children with disabilities. DIWA has engaged 40 schools from four education zones to pilot the Washington Group Short Set of questions on disability. An orientation session on the usage of the Short Set was attended by 10 teachers from each school, and sample questions were given to each of the schools. A monitoring visit in 3 of the 40 target schools showed that the Short Set captures more accurate data, revealing that there were actually 1,585 boys and 1,405 girls with disabilities as opposed to previous data that showed only 645 boys and 643 girls with disabilities. Using the Washington Short Set  has enabled teachers and school staff to better support children with disabilities and refer them to other services and support they may need. For instance, those with severe learning difficulties have been assessed by special needs teachers and are now receiving remedial classes in improvised resource rooms.  Additionally, children with Albinism are now getting skin treatment from the hospital thanks to a DRF-funded project of the Association of People with Albinism.

In addition to ensuring that data collection correctly captures the number of children with disabilities, DIWA has drafted a set of guidelines that provides teaching guidelines for different impairment groups.  DIWA has begun rolling out these Teaching Guidelines in selected schools in Lilongwe. To date, a training has been delivered to District Education Managers, Primary Education Advisors, and the Director of Special Needs Education at the district level. As a result of feedback , the Teaching Guidelines have been renamed the Inclusive Education Practical Source Book for Learners with Disabilities, and it has been adopted in 40 schools. Currently, 80 copies of the Source Book have been distributed to target schools as well as to the Ministry’s district offices, primary education advisors, and the Office of the Director of Special Needs. Starting in September 2019 – the beginning of the academic year in Malawi –, DIWA will conduct monitoring visits and gather feedback from implementation of the Source Book.

In addition, DIWA, in collaboration with the Teacher Inclusive Education Alliance – initiated by DIWA – and the District Education Managers, drafted an Inclusive Education School Based Policyto guide the work of all actors involved in the provision of inclusive education. Initially drafted for a pilot in 10 target schools, this policy calls for schools to commit to allocating at least 10% of their School Improvement Grant (SIG) towards disability-specific support and accommodations.SIG is an initiative of the Malawi Government under which schools get financial support directly from the central government to implement planned activities at school level.  Results from DIWA’s advocacy have started to pay off in some of the target schools, enabling the set-up of learning resource rooms, increased accessibility in the schools’ built environments, and an increased number of teachers. For instance, in the Likuni zone, there was only one Special Needs teacher to support 153 children with disabilities. With the SIG allocation, two more teachers have now been recruited. In the long run, DIWA is looking to scale up the Inclusive Education Based Policy so that it becomes a national policy.

These exciting examples illustrate the leadership of DRF grantees in promoting inclusive education, in collaboration with the Malawi Government. The ultimate goal is to reach all schools in Malawi, providing access for all children with disabilities to a quality and inclusive education.