In Malawi, all persons are accorded the right to education under Section 25 (1) of the Constitution. On the other hand, the Disability Act of 2012 provides the right to inclusive education to persons with disabilities. However, in this two-part investigation, our reporter JOHN CHIRWA finds that despite the favourable legal frameworks, persons with disabilities are still vulnerable to exclusion in education.
As one enters the Chancellor College campus in Zomba, a magnificent multi-purpose building—the Great Hall—is the first thing that grabs visitors’ attention.
It is a gigantic octagonal-shaped building that stands imposingly and exhibits modern European architecture.
Outside, the hall’s stairs ascend to the balcony that lead to two exit doors. The stairs also connect with a long winding corridor leading to the heart of the campus where sits a towering library. The awe of the three-storey library cannot be overlooked, either.
But beyond that exquisiteness, lies tears and cries of special needs students; some of whom have never experienced the glamour of the buildings’ upper floors.
It is not by choice. But the buildings are not friendly to be accessed by individuals with various forms of disability.
Ishmael Kwalapu, 30, is a first-year student studying Bachelor of Science (Education – Mathematics).
He has spent a semester on campus, but has never seen the inside beauty of this magnificent library.
The only crime he committed to limit his freedom of accessing the library is his physical disability.
“I use a wheelchair and the library has no facilities like an elevator to enable me access to various services in the building,” he says.
Kwalapu says as an alternative he sends friends to search books on his behalf.
“Sometimes they don’t really get the kind of books I need. This is affecting my studies negatively,” he says.
Kwalapu says he also lacks a conducive environment to conduct his studies.
“I am forced to study in my room. But it is not a conducive environment for study. In the library, you are encouraged by friends to study. In my room, I lack that support and encouragement.
“For example, I don’t have anyone to confer with whenever I have difficulties understanding some texts, which my friends in the library are able to do,” he says.
Kwalapu says he also finds it difficult to access the newly-constructed lecture theatres.
“Lecture theatres such as Mwambo and Chikowi are far from hostels and are not connected with disability friendly corridors.
“Even for classes that take place in the Great Hall, its corridors have no ramps. So, I am forced to take a longer and unchartered route through a public road to attend classes.
“But this becomes a challenge on rainy days to the extent that I miss classes,” explains Kwalapu.
Fourth-Year student Godfrey Milanzie, 24, has a share of miseries. He says he was forced out of media studies on the basis that he is visually impaired.
“The first challenge I met when I came here was to be forced out of the programme I was selected for. I wanted to study Media for Development. My dream was to become a journalist.
“But when I came here, authorities told me that I couldn’t do the programme. They cited a course called videography which, they said, I wouldn’t manage to do because of my disability. Instead, I was asked to do either Bachelor of Arts [Theology] or Bachelor of Arts [Humanities],” explains Milanzie.
Milanzie says his friend was redirected from Bachelor of Arts [Communication and Cultural Studies] to Bachelor of Education while several others were redirected from sciences to humanities.
“It was painful, very much painful to be denied what I was aspiring for. But there was nothing I could do. I just accepted what they told me because there was no one I could complain to,” says Milanzie.
Milanzie claims that he is defending a distinction in his studies, arguing that he couldn’t fail videography “just because I have a visual impairment”.
“There is no fairness in the way education is offered here. In fact, this thing they call inclusion does not exist here. It is just a matter of vocabulary, a matter of policy which is on paper and it never gets implemented.
“For example, there are no Braille
in the library, not even a braille past paper. This simply shows that the Chancellor College community is not willing to help us—beginning from the administration, lecturers to fellow students.
“So, for a visually impaired student to do well here, that person must exceptionally intelligent. Otherwise, there is no environment to enable us to perform better in our studies. It’s high time the administration or government walked the talk on inclusive education,” he says.
Chancellor College Students Union(Succ) director of special needs Peter Jere says the college has a resource centre for special needs students, but it is understaffed, and it operates with limited resources.
He says the college has 79 special needs students who depend on six specialists and one sign language interpreter.
“These are not enough to assist all of us effectively. For example, for an exam scheduled for 8am, we end up writing at 1pm just because of understaffing and limited resources. This inconveniences us psychologically,” he says.
Succ president Godfrey Phunyanya, a person with albinism, says students with disabilities face discrimination on campus which limits their participation in various activities.
“As a person with albinism, I want to take advantage of my position to advocate against discrimination so that those with disabilities should move out of hiding,” he says.
Our investigation indicates that Chancellor College is the only tertiary institution that admits the highest number of persons with disabilities. Efforts have just started with Mzuzu University to admit special needs students.
However, almost the same challenges are registered across all the institutions.
Mzuzu University Student Representative Council president Louis Kapusa says the campus has about six special needs students who are accommodated on campus to reduce mobility challenges, but acknowledges that some infrastructure remain disability unfriendly.
“The administration tries its best to address their plight although some issues like access to some classrooms remain a challenge,” he says.
Our investigation is corroborated by research findings by the Disability Rights Clinic based at Chancellor College’s Faculty of Law.
The clinic’s president Kabula Yande Chagwamnjira says their study found that Chancellor College has individuals with various forms of disabilities such as visual impairment, physical disabilities, mental impairment and hearing impairment.
“But it’s those with visual impairment who are in majority. And it is difficult for these to access information, and the playing field is not leveled for them.
“Consequently, they are not exercising their right to education on an equal basis with the rest of the students,” she says.
Chagwamnjira observes that at the heart of education is access to information.
She, however, says at Chancellor College, special needs students are denied their right to education due to limited access to information, or lack of assistive devices.
“For example, visually impaired students are denied the right to study particular programmes because of the lack of assistive devices available in that program which defies the principle of reasonable accommodation, and this is discrimination.
“Reasonable accommodation requires necessary and appropriate modifications and adjustments that ensure that persons with disability enjoy or access all their human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with others,” explains Chagwamnjira.
She says their findings also show that there are a few computers at the resource centre to allow students with visual impairment to access information. Some of the computers do not even have jaws, a software that reads out information on the screen.
She says special needs students also face challenges to access classrooms due to poor conditions of the corridors to the extent that they depend on someone to take them around campus.
She says this is discriminatory because “they are not exercising their right to education independently which students without disability are able to do”.
“The college prides itself as the only institution that caters for persons with disability, but there is more that needs to be done to allow special needs students to enjoy their right to higher education on campus,” she says.
Chancellor College registrar Mary Wasiri says there are several interventions that have been put in place to achieve inclusive education at the institution.