A Brief Overview on African Children with Learning Disabilities

By Yolanda Shao, Rosa Guo, Kaman Mok

The Current Situation in Africa

Learning disability (here on after referred to as LDs), defined by the Department of Health as a “significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new skills, with a reduced ability to cope independently,” or impaired intelligence and social functioning, has received little awareness in Africa.

With the ample educational resources of countless developed countries, it is often forgotten that there are still 1.4 million out-of-school children in the world who do not have access to education. 80% of them are girls and children with learning disabilities in Africa. In Africa, the rise in the number of slow learners and children with learning difficulties has become a serious issue and source of concern. The issue is reflected in different school-leaving exams, where each year an average of 30% of the outcomes are below average or fail. (Abosi .2007)

Major Challenges that African Children with LDs are Facing.

There are multiple difficulties for African Children with LDs, potentially causing an unequal distribution of learning resources. These challenges can be mainly categorized into three areas: education exclusion, inaccuracy of data, discrimination

  1. Education Exclusion

The first and foremost challenge is lack of public funding to support children with LDs. It directly results in the lack of staff, facilities, and schools for children with special learning needs.

In most African countries, many of the schools that offer special education are usually private institutions organized by parent groups or LDs related organizations. The tuition is generally higher than normal public education since it includes the training fee for teachers. Thus, special education is a luxury for families who are financially capable. Moreover, the study shows that many children with LDs cannot afford a decent meal in school. Due to the financial problem on personal expenses, some children with LDs even go out to beg during the school time.

In addition, the education system is inadequate to cope with special learning needs. The vast majority of African schools are based on the survival of the fittest, causing children with learning disabilities to be rejected from regular schools at entry exams. According to UNESCO, in Sierra Leone, less than 10% of children with learning disabilities gain access to basic education. Approximately 76 percent of children with learning disabilities are not in school. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics in 2012, less than one percent of children with learning disabilities are still in education. (Uganda Bureau of Statistics 2012)

Even for those who can attend special LDs schools, the standardized examination system is a problem. In Kenya, there is a national exam offered for all students at the end of the eighth year. However, the committee doesn’t offer any adequate special treatments to students with LDs. As of right now, the committee only gave an extra 30 minutes for these kids, which does not adequately address the special needs of LDs students.  Because children with dyslexia are unable to understand words properly, they may be eliminated from such important exams and thus not receive higher education.

Mother of child with eye impairment report her kid fail in class 
Photo by: startsomegood

II.     Inaccuracy of Data

The second major challenge is the inaccuracy of data on LDs in Africa. Data accuracy needs to improve if the African government wants to make applicable policies for children with LDs. The two main reasons contributing to the inaccuracy of data are low birth registration rate and stigma associated with disability in African social norms.

Many African countries have low birth registration rates for children with disabilities. According to the data from ACPF in 2011, only 28.5% of children with disabilities had been registered at birth in Ethiopia the number is 48.7% in Uganda. Mainly because many caregivers in Africa do not care about the registration status of their children. And since many children with LDs were born in rural areas with the help of a midwife rather than a medical doctor, their data is lost from data collection in many cases. Meanwhile many of them will not report data when the symptoms of LDs are shown.

Stigma also plays a role in impacting data at a social and family level. Many family members of children with learning disabilities feel reluctant to report that their child has a learning disability. This also contributes to the low birth registration rate which further reduces accessible rehabilitation service. Specifically, more than 79 percent of children with visual impairment and 24 percent of children with multiple disabilities in Ethiopia are unregistered. Such inaccurate data causes a huge barrier to positive change by the government. Many African Governments underestimate the number of children with LDs because of this, thus failing to prioritize the special needs for children and allocate enough funds on special education.

III. Discrimination

Another major challenge that children with learning disabilities face in Africa is discrimination. Whether mentally or physically, most children with learning disabilities experience varying levels of discrimination at their school, family, and community.

In school, children with learning disabilities face discrimination from peers and even teachers. This includes forms of violence, abuse, and neglect. In Eastern Africa, it is estimated that between 16 and 20 percent of children with learning disabilities are victims of discrimination. Children with language impairment are five times more likely to face negligence.

As a result of limited access to higher education and African traditional social belief, the community’s recognition of the cause of the learning disability leans toward a superstitious perspective, attributing it to witchcraft, curses from God, and evil spirits. In addition, community’s knowledge of medical technology is limited, greatly reducing the likelihood that a child with a disorder to seek appropriate medical support.

Children with LDs lose opportunity towards proper education
Photo by: Human rights watch-“c

The discrimination from community not only apply to the children with LDs individually, but also their families. In African tradition, the children’s disability is often blamed on the mother, who is expected to take all the responsibility of children’s welfare. The phenomenon of a father leaving or abandoning the child with LDs is common as they want to reject responsibility. Nevertheless, the discrimination can spread to the father too. In the rare case where the father accepts the children with LDs, he will receive discrimination from peers. In the interview with Dolerence Were, the executive director of Uganda society for disabled children, he states that: “It is difficult to hear from your peers that you are not a man because you fathered a disabled child.”

The Intervention Of Nongovernmental Organization – Case study: Kenya Rare Gem Talent School

Even under such difficult situations, there are many African grassroots organizations attempting to help kids with learning disabilities and give them a brighter future. These organizations include Startsomegood, Inclusion International-Africa and Plan International.

One of the most influential schools among them is the Rare Gem Talent School. Being almost the only school that provides special dyslexic education for children with LDs in Kenya, the school’s name comes from the idea that every child with dyslexia is special like a gem and shines in their own way.

The founders Nancy and Phyllis Munyi are both parents of children with dyslexia. Nancy herself is a teacher trained for kids with learning disabilities. Nancy, after witnessing children with LDs being beaten and kicked out of school, decided to start a school for these kids who would otherwise be forgotten.

When Rare Gem first founded in 2012, it was a small school in a rented house with only one teacher—Nancy —taking care of their teaching as well as daily life. But today, Munyi is already planning on raising funds to construct a bigger campus to help more children. Right now, Rare Gem Talent School has 200+ students, 24 teachers, out of the 8 students graduated last year, some went to community college, something that would never happen before Rare Gem was there.

Children in rare gem talent school perform traditional Maasai dance
Photo by: Dyslexia Kenya Organization twitter

Despite the amazing progress over the years, the school experienced many challenges along the way. Dyslexia and other learning disabilities are what Munyi called “hidden disabilities.” Because of the cultural discrimination, when teachers would recommend the kid to go to rare gem, the parents would refuse, claiming rare gem is for “mentally-retarded” students.

Moreover, the teachers at rare gem need to be trained specifically for kids with LDs before going into their work. But as Munyi trained the teachers for special needs, these teachers became more marketable and some of them transferred immediately to work for the government, which offers better tuition and a sense of honor in Kenya. Nevertheless, there are still teachers who wished to help these poor children and stayed with the school through the toil. During COVID, the teachers receive no salaries. While some teachers found something else to do, around 18 teachers returned to stay with the school.

Teachers from Rare gem talent school receive training from Darren Clark 
Photo by: Dyslexia Kenya Organization twitter

As COVID hit Kenya last year, students went out of school for a long period of time. Due to the poor economy, many schools and the parents have no access to computers and teachers are not trained for online education. As school went out, Rare Gem, receiving no tuition and getting no sustainable donation, experienced a tough financial crisis and almost went bankrupt. Munyi had to talk to the landlord about their difficulties as well as going to different houses to teach to pay for the rent. However, Phyllis said the school has COVID protocols such as bringing students on campus and limiting interaction with other people, as well as vaccinating all teachers. Although there is a possible hit back of COVID-19, the school looks prepared for it and for a brighter future.

The Future

Learning disability is not a small problem in Africa. Without adequate education and constant encouragement, children with LDs will be kicked out of the school system, denied a chance of education and great job, abandoned by father, and detested by family, looked down at by all the people in their community, unable to live up to their full potentials.

As many people are still not familiar with LDs today, raising awareness is a key factor towards positive change. It’s important to help spread awareness, whether through building a website, talking to a friend, or sharing this article.

Rare Gem Talent School and other nongovernmental organizations are looking for donations globally, they are hoping for long-term, sustainable funding. With long-term help, in the future, schools for children with learning disabilities might gain more prevalence in Kenya, Africa, and even to the whole world.

Moreover, Rare Gem is not lonely on its path. Many organizations nowadays are also working on improving the lives of people who have learning disabilities. The International Dyslexia Association dedicated towards study and treatment of dyslexia, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities works on increasing opportunities for people with learning disabilities to achieve their potential. It is likely to expect a brighter future with these organizations, where more knowledge is spread globally about learning disabilities and more people are willing to step in to help these children in Africa, who is likely to embark on a new life journey because of your support.

Reference

1. ACPF. 2011. “A glimpse into a hidden world.” The Lives of Children with Disabilities in Africa.

2. ACPF and Addis Ababa. 2011. “A glimpse into a hidden world.” Children with Disabilities in Africa.

3. Katherine, Garnett. n.d. “Some Of The Problems Children Encounter In Learning A School’s Hidden Curriculum.” Journal Of Reading, Writing, And Learning Disabilities International

​4. Christianson, A. L., M. E. Zwane, P. Manga, E. Rosen, A. Venter, D. Downs, and J. G. R. Kromberg. 2002. “Children With Intellectual Disability In Rural South Africa: Prevalence And Associated Disability”. Journal Of Intellectual Disability Research 46 (2): 179-186. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2788.2002.00390.x.

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