All children can learn.
This is the slogan of a classroom in Daerit Elementary School in Asmara, Eritrea, established in January 2015 and that can welcome up to 40 children with disabilities.
The classroom is part of a pilot program led by the government of Eritrea for inclusive education. The program can enroll children with a wide range of special needs, from children with autism and Down syndrome to children with hearing and sight impairments, irrespective of age or impairment.
The lessons from this model classroom will be used to expand the program to other schools, with the support of the Global Partnership grant to Eritrea.
Teacher Ghenet Mehari received training on special needs education during the summer and engages the students in varieties of activities such as writing, art, clay work, indoor games, music and sport. The learning experience has helped children improve their performance in daily routines that foster their autonomy such as use of hygiene facilities and hygiene practices.
Attending school can mean freedom for disabled children
At the time of my visit, only 28 children were present in class. Ms. Tigisti Marhi, the coordinator of Zoba Anseba, told us that three children had been transferred to regular classes. The rest of the children had to drop out, mainly because their parents were no longer able to bring them to school.
Ms. Tigisti also told us that prior to attending this school, most children were locked up in their homes and some were even chained. The opening of the classroom has created an opportunity to literally set these children free and allow them to interact with other children at school.
Education is viewed as the cornerstone of national development in Eritrea. The 2010 National Education Policy states: “Our education system aspires to produce all round citizens along with a firm commitment to country, people and social justice. This aspiration includes the development of creative and productive individuals who are capable of contributing towards the attainment of a modern, competitive, harmonious and self-reliant Eritrea.”
Limited offering for inclusive education
An analysis by the ministry of labor and human welfare in 2009 indicates that there are about 10,104 children with disabilities in the age range 10-19 in Eritrea. Of this group, children with sensory disabilities–blind and deaf–make up the largest proportion: more than 30%.
There are currently three special elementary schools accepting children with disabilities: two for the deaf and one for the blind. They are boarding schools located in Asmara and Keren, both of which are urban towns. The two schools for the deaf are run by religious organizations while the school for the blind is run by the government.
Data from 2012/2013 indicate that total enrollment in these schools is 183 students, of which 74 are girls. This is far from sufficient to welcome more than 3,000 children with these disabilities. Hence a large number of deaf and blind children have remained out of school. There is very little data available on the other forms of disabilities.
In general, children with disabilities are disproportionately excluded from educational opportunities. Most children, youth and adults with disabilities can study in ordinary education settings with adaptations and modifications in curriculum, curriculum delivery and materials. In order to be given an equal opportunity for success, these children need support to develop the particular skills they will need to overcome the barriers emanating from their disability. The educational needs of youths and adults with disabilities should be considered with a view of supporting independence and self-reliance.
Short and long term plans to improve inclusive education
The Eritrean ministry of education developed an education sector plan in 2012, with support from the Global Partnership that included both short term and long term goals for inclusive education. Short-term interventions focus on providing access to school to disabled children in two ways: by improving learning conditions in schools that are currently offering education to special needs children through building additional classrooms and providing equipment, and by building special needs classrooms within semi-urban elementary schools to accommodate children with special needs in these areas.
In 2013, Eritrea received a $25.3 million grant from the Global Partnership to implement its education program. The program includes a plan to expand Keren School for the deaf to welcome an additional 80 children. Two additional classrooms will be constructed in each of four primary schools to expand access to children living with sensory disabilities. The classrooms will also have specialized teaching and learning materials. Training will be provided to 50 teachers, and supervisors and directors will also get graining on special needs education and sensitive pedagogy.
Eritrea faces many challenges in the education sector. But the country’s commitment to the education of its most vulnerable children is inspiring. I look forward to seeing many more classrooms like the one at Daerit Elementary School when I return to Eritrea.