Addressing the needs of learners with disabilities in Zimbabwe

When the 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report: Inclusion and education – All means all was unveiled in Harare last month, Zimbabwe was cited in a special mention as making progressive strides towards assisting learners with disabilities. It was in the good company of Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda, the only countries in sub-Saharan Africa that recognize sign language as an official language in schools, and therefore, more likely to have internet access that can be adapted to suit their needs. 

The report was launched by the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, in partnership with UNESCO, in Harare on 22 April, 2021. 

It is important for all schools to extend the benefits of inclusive education to every single child. Nonetheless, inclusive education should invariably benefit people living with disabilities first since these have been marginalised for decades. An inclusive education system should benefit all learners regardless of their gender, race, colour or creed, religious and political persuasion.
Mrs. Tumingsang Thabela, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education

The Permanent Secretary’s remarks, made during the launch of the GEM Report, were read on her behalf by Mr. John Dewah, who is the Chief Director, Curriculum Development and Technical Services Department in the Ministry. 

Disability remains a huge challenge in Zimbabwe. For instance, according to the 2019 Annual Education Statistics Report, there were 85560 learners with impairments in the country. Based on this data, the proportions of learners with intellectual impairments for primary and secondary levels of education are 42.14 percent and 33.62 percent, respectively. The proportions of learners with albinism for primary and secondary levels of education are 0.91 percent and 1.70 percent, respectively. 

Meanwhile, visual impairment is the second most common disability at secondary school level at 18.99 percent, which is higher than that at primary school level (10.03 percent). The hearing impairment is commonest at both levels of schooling, with almost equal proportions of about 12 percent. There is a higher proportion of learners with learning disability at primary level (19.04 percent) than at secondary school level (9.20 percent). Both physical impairment and communication and speech impairments have higher proportions at the primary level of education than the secondary one. 

However, the country with support of development partners like UNESCO is making good progress towards addressing the needs of learners with disability. Noteworthy is the draft 2019 Inclusive Education Policy that includes a clear implementation plan and provides a good framework for addressing the needs of learners with disabilities. The enactment of the draft policy will be another milestone for inclusive education in Zimbabwe. 

And, in response to the Covid-19 situation, the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education formulated a clearly spelt-out Education Cluster COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Strategy (2020), articulating among others, alternative learning approaches, such as online lessons and distance learning through TV and radios. However, although 89.4 % of households own a phone making online learning easy, only 40.2%, 15.2%, 35.2% and 30.3% own/have access to radio, computer, TV & internet respectively, according to a recent study by professors Tsitsi Chataika and Lincoln Hlatywayo. 

But significant challenges remain especially in the area of implementing comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), which is a key pillar in addressing the inclusive education agenda. 

Supporting comprehensive sexuality education

For instance, a recent study on comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) for young persons with disabilities in Zimbabwe supported by UNESCO Education Team as part of a regional assessment and contribution to the body of knowledge on inclusive education highlighted gaps such as inadequate teaching infrastructure. 

The study demonstrated that the country has comprehensive policies and syllabi that provide a conducive environment for the provision of comprehensive sexuality education to children and young persons with disability, especially at primary and secondary school levels. However, the curriculum at teacher training colleges and rehabilitation centres does not include comprehensive sexuality education for children and young people with disabilities (CYPwD). 

To address these hiccups, efforts are being made to provide support services such as resource rooms (though some of them are not yet adequately resourced), itinerant services, provision of educational resources relevant to their needs, technical support such as Braille transcribers, teacher-aides, peer support, guidance and counselling as well as the provision of appropriate equipment.

Noting that broadly, all countries have committed to inclusive education, Professor Hubert Gijzen who is the UNESCO Regional Director and Representative for Southern Africa emphasizes that more needs to be done. 

This means there should be no discrimination or exclusion on grounds of gender, age, location, poverty, disability, ethnicity, language, religion and so on. The concept of Inclusive education is challenged when some learners are excluded on the basis of any of these grounds.
Prof. Hubert Gijzen, UNESCO Regional Director for Southern Africa

The 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report provides an in-depth analysis of key factors for exclusion of learners in education systems worldwide including background, identity and ability (i.e. gender, age, location, poverty, disability, ethnicity, indigeneity, language, religion, migration or displacement status, sexual orientation or gender identity expression, incarceration, beliefs and attitudes).

The report identifies an exacerbation of exclusion during the COVID-19 pandemic and estimates that about 40% of low and lower-middle income countries have not supported disadvantaged learners during temporary school shutdown. The 2020 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report urges countries to focus on those left behind as schools reopen so as to foster more resilient and equal societies.