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Struck by Fate: Inside Special School Where Disability Students Learn in Termite-infested Classrooms

Struck by Fate: Inside Special School Where Disability Students Learn in Termite-infested Classrooms

 

Ndifreke Enefiok/Mercy Obot

Not ready to give up

 

Guided only by the sound of his white cane as he navigates a bumpy, broken and sometimes muddy road, Uduakobong Bassey, a visually impaired young man isn’t one to give up.

 

Walking the long stretch of the untarred Mbiabong Etoi Road to school in a bid to learn how to read, write and acquire skill sets was not easy.

 

Despite the challenges he faced on the difficult route, he persevered day after day, refusing to give up no matter how daunting the barriers.

 

Many witnesses reported that he fell multiple times owing to the difficult terrain, but that each time he stood up, gathered his books, and walked on.

 

Not even the murky remnants of crusted cement left on the road by Hensek Construction’s daily operations could deter him. Not far from the school’s entrance lie mounds of chippings that Hensek Construction, a “very responsible” and “safety conscious” company dumped for months or even years.

 

Uduak, 33, said he traversed the rough and untarred route every day, banging into ditches and stones, till he finished his secondary education at the Special Education Centre, off Udoudoma Street in Uyo, before sitting for the 2024 Joint Admission and Matriculation Board, JAMB, examination.

 

This is the journey that Uduak and other visually impaired and special needs students go through to access their school located behind Hensek Integrated Services’ yard.

 

“Have you seen how bad that road is? I’ve fallen on that road several times and the same thing has happened to my classmates who are visually impaired.  But I was not deterred. It was the price I had to pay for pursuing my education.

 

“We fell and got up because our dreams are more important than the bad road. You see the things this company (Hensek) dumped on the entrance to our school? It’s not helping coupled with the bad road. When it rains, the road floods and we fall anyhow,’’ Uduak said with a carefree smile as if going to the school was a walk in the park.

 

Uduak wasn’t born blind. He lost his sight at the age of 15 in 2006, while attending Secondary Commercial School in Ibekwe, Ikot Abasi, days after killing a spider that had entered his left ear while playing outside with his classmates.

 

Not long after, he suffered complications that caused him to become blind, paralysed, deaf, and dumb. He recovered from paralysis and deafness, but he never regained his sight after a doctor diagnosed him with glaucoma.

 

Uduak thinks his condition is more spiritual than medical and hopes he will regain his sight someday soon. It is this riveting hope that has and stirred him to want to be a lawyer in the future to inspire other people with disabilities to chase their dreams.

 

To pursue that dream, Uduak had relocated to Uyo with his dad after he lost his mother. It was when a friend (now deceased) invited him for the White Cane Day celebration in Ikot Ekpene that he realised there are schools for people like him.  White Cane Day is celebrated annually to raise awareness for blind people.

 

On October 10, 2019, he took a chance at fate by starting a rehabilitation programme, a compulsory requirement for enrollment at the Special Education Centre, Uyo. Long before becoming the school prefect, he learned how to make household detergents through one of the missionaries’ skill development initiatives and taught his successor and other students how to do the same.

 

Despite losing his father while still in secondary school, Uduak kept going after what he wanted out of life.  He started a business after graduation, selling doughnuts, fried groundnuts, detergent, perfume, and everything else he could get his hands on.

 

“When I look back and I don’t see my father alive, I don’t see my mother alive and I see myself as a visually impaired person, I see education as the only source of livelihood for me. Education ultimately is the only thing that can catapult me to the pinnacle of life.

 

“I summoned courage, believing that before you achieve your goals, you must definitely face challenges in life. One thing I believe in life is if you don’t believe in yourself, which is the first step to achieving success, then you are bound to fail.

 

“I equally want to correct the perceptions people have about persons with disabilities. I want to prove that even if one is disabled, the disability has nothing to do with the person’s ability. That is why I prefer the public address us as persons with special ability,” Uduak told our correspondents.

 

 

Crowded and poorly equipped classrooms 

 

Goals 4 and 10 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) advocate for quality education and reducing inequality by ensuring citizens’ economic, political, and social inclusion, including those with disabilities. Goal 11 requires cities and infrastructure to be inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable for all.

 

While Nigeria long adopted the SDGs, the Save the Children International (SCI) report for 2022, shows that 95.5 percent of the country’s disabled children do not have access to education. While we could not find current data, the National Bureau of Statistics reported in 2020 that only 10,000 of an estimated 270,000 children with disabilities, who needed basic education were receiving some type of education at the time. The implication is that 260, 000 Nigerian children with special needs are not receiving basic education.

 

Students with Disabilities Stuff in Crowded classroom.

Our reporters found that in Akwa Ibom, some of the obstacles limiting access to inclusive education include lack of well-funded special schools, special teachers, and obsolete libraries and instructional resources for the visually impaired. Other issues include poor teaching and learning facilities, outdated ramps, a shortage of sign language interpreters, and poor nutrition in boarding houses.

 

A few classroom blocks at Uyo’s Special Education Centre accommodate both primary and secondary school students, including those with disabilities. Some of the classroom ceilings were shattered, and the ceiling fans were faulty and rusty.

 

The classroom windows and doors were broken, and the ramps for the physically challenged had been washed off and full of patches and holes, creating a serious risk to children in wheelchairs who must rely on their friends for assistance.

 

The walls and roofs of the blocks donated by Maltina, NPDC, FEYReP, and other organisations had been eaten away by termites, including the Principal’s office, which was clearly under attack. The doors to the restroom beside the SS1 block had fallen due to poor construction and were no longer serving the students.

 

The football pitch was overgrown with tall grass, and the entire school used only one swing. Teachers at the school used chalk and blackboards to teach, including the visually impaired.  The floor of the refectory built in 2016 by the former First Lady, Martha Emmanuel, had broken, and the fan regulators were corroded and no longer functional.

 

While the authorities of the school denied our reporters access to the hostels, laboratories, and libraries, they, however, observed that the facilities were not in the best of shape as heaps of broken bunks were found outside the male hostel and surrounding areas.

 

Due to the limited number of sign language teachers, the students were compelled to independently acquire sign language skills in order to communicate with their mates who have disabilities.

 

Data from Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities (JONAPWDS) website – www.jonapwd.org, reveals that Akwa Ibom State has seven learning centres for children with disabilities. The enrolment capacity, which stood at about 2000 pupils as at 2014 is yet to be updated both on the official website of the Akwa Ibom state government website.

 

The free and compulsory education policy, which was introduced in 2008 under the Godswill Akpabio’s administration failed to do the magic as government subventions to schools were grossly inadequate.

 

Findings showed that government paid N100 per primary school pupil and N300 per secondary school student to cover logistics and other expenses. The policy also promised rehabilitation and reconstruction of schools, provision of hostels, supply of desks, textbooks, equipping of laboratories, and payment of SSCE examination fees for all students. While the government has religiously paid SSCE fees for students in the state, the other components of the policy have been observed in the breach.

 

Despite attempts by successive administrations in the state to sustain the policy, it has limped in the face of the UN’s standard for quality education. The reason is that the Akwa Ibom State Government is not paying attention to children with disabilities. That is why people like Uduak were compelled to learn in overcrowded classrooms with broken desks and antiquated infrastructure.

 

Basins of needs and a trickling budget 

 

Even with its dilapidated facility and need for infrastructure upgrade, the Special Education Centre in Uyo has continued to receive inadequate budget allocation in recent years.

 

For instance, in 2020, the centre received N1, 000,000 for a workshop on new pedagogy in special education, N2, 000,000 for instructional materials, and N20, 000,000 for student welfare and feeding.

 

Additionally, N750, 000 was approved for the purchase of double bunk beds and N1,000,000 for mattresses and pillows for the school which had over 800 students at the time.

 

What was released was a far cry from what was required by the school and why several projects, including the construction of an examination hall, classroom blocks, and staff quarters received zero funding.

 

In 2021 and with a population of 1000 students, the centre received a paltry N12, 700,000 from the Ministry of Education’s total budget of N5billion.

 

Similarly, in 2022, a total of N12, 700,000 was allocated to the centre, with no provision for capital projects. The ministry of education spent N8 billion on capital projects that year, but none benefited the special school.

 

In 2023, the centre again received N12, 700,000 from the ministry’s total budget of N53, 781,129,960, with no capital projects allocated to it. The 2024 budget has also failed to cover capital project for the school, even when a total allocation of N1.6 billion was allocated to the education ministry.

 

Outdated books and high cost of instructional materials 

 

Findings by our reporters showed that students at the Uyo Special Education Centre still use outdated instructional materials and cannot afford new and updated ones.

 

The visually impaired pupils require specialised materials to learn, including stylus, slate, braille embosser and printer as well as braille note taker. The stylus and slate, which are similar to pens and pencils used by normal individuals, enable the blind to create characters with raised dots or bumps on paper.

 

A braille embosser, is an impact printer which transfers braille characters from a computer onto paper using translation software to allow for ease of reading for the blind.

 

The cost of a braille alphabet board with raised dots costs N74,429, while braille embosser which remains a significant barrier to inclusive education costs N5,464,400 at current naira exchange rate of N1,520.67 to the US dollar ($3,595.00).

 

Additionally, a braille writing pad costs N21, 000, while braille note-taker, which is a portable device equipped with a word processor, internet connectivity, and software applications that enable blind pupils to perform diverse tasks. It also features in-built refreshable braille displays.

 

Unfortunately, the cost of a braille note-taker has increased over time, from $3,500 to $5,795 (approximately N8, 808,400).

 

Unfortunately, these gaps are clear violations of the Universal Basic Education Law of Akwa Ibom State (2005) and the Child Rights Law (2008) that mandate the government to ensure children have access to free and inclusive education.

 

Section 5 and 7 of the law state that the government shall provide adequate funding for the implementation of the law while the State government shall ensure all public primary and junior secondary schools have adequate infrastructure including classrooms, furniture, and water supply.

 

Also the Child Rights Law of Akwa Ibom State (2008), Section 15 (1) provides that every child has the right to free, compulsory, and universal basic education, and it shall be the duty of the state government to provide such education.

 

Further provisions of the law states in Section 15 (2) that the Government of Akwa Ibom State shall ensure that all children have access to quality education, including children with disabilities and special needs.

 

Section 16 provides that the state government shall establish and maintain special schools and units for children with disabilities and special needs while Section 17 states that the state government shall ensure that all schools have adequate facilities and resources to cater to the needs of children with disabilities and special needs.

 

Bleak future for inclusive education 

 

Lack of inadequate learning infrastructure has left students with disabilities in the state grappling to learn and develop the needed skills for the 21th century.  Uboho Ime, a visually impaired SS2 student and head girl of the inclusive school at Mbiabong recounted the ordeals she has to pass through every day in pursuit of education.

Uboho Ime

Uboho, 20, who dreams of becoming a journalist, painted a very pathetic picture of the things she goes through in school.

 

“Lack of writing materials is one of the problems I face in school and since my first day in SS2, I have not written any note in a block pen. I only record the notes in my recorder.

 

“For some teachers, when it’s time to submit notes, they ask us to bring our notes for checking. I will just tell them, Sir, please, I do not write them down in my notebook.

 

“Another challenge we have is insufficient time to access some braille textbooks in the library. The textbooks are just there. Sometimes you want to take the textbooks home but the teacher will insist that we stay in the library and read.

 

“These are braille textbooks and we don’t use our eyes to read. You have to take time to search the contents to know what to do and where to read and this takes time. How many minutes will we spend in the library, whereas class is going on,” Uboho lamented.

 

Despite the challenges she faces on a daily basis, Uboho said she is happy to be in school and to lead the students as well.

 

“It makes me feel happy to be in school because people in the society feel that when someone becomes visually impaired, that person cannot do anything. Being able to lead the students in school means that there is something in me and I can do what others cannot do,” she said.

 

Joy Kingsley, a physically challenged students in SS1, who has been confined to an old rusty wheelchair said getting education has not been easy.

 

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Miss Kingsley, who is an orphan with no known relatives, lives in the hostel when the school is in session and on holidays. The hostel is the only home she knows and students are her only relations.

 

The girl, who had earlier wanted to become a medical doctor said she was forced to abandon her dream because her peers and some teachers said she cannot make a headway.

 

A litany of needs

 

The Principal of the Special School, Ememabasi Isaac lamented that the school is in dire need of teachers, particularly in the area of science teachers and sign language interpretation. With a population of 1920 students and an average of 50 students per class, she said the school would do better with improved funding and infrastructure.

 

“We need more teachers to employ so that our students can have quality education. We have only five sign language interpreters, which is grossly inadequate for our hearing-impaired students. We also need more mathematics and physics teachers, as most of the teachers posted to us by the state secondary education board specialise in biology or basic science. .

 

”The school needs a general overhauling of its electrical system. Most of the students who have special needs do not start school on time. Most of them are adults in the minor classes, so the quantity of food you would have given to a minor like 15 or 16 years, you are now giving it to someone who is 22 years old, so this is a challenge.

 

“We have students coming all the way from Eket, Nsit Ubium, Onna, among others,  looking for school accommodation and this is the real age we should take them in but we can’t because we have only 100 spaces: 50 for males while 50 for females. That is why we need more accommodation.

 

“We appeal to the state Universal Basic Education to provide us with accommodation so that there will be a separate one for the primary session because it is absurd for you to mix the infants with adults,” the principal said.

 

A special teacher, Imo Essien argued that despite the government’s promise of free and compulsory education, students with disabilities are left behind due to a lack of resources, inclusive environments, and insensitive policies.

 

“The society is not inclusive. The schools are not inclusive. There should be provisions for inclusive classrooms, inclusive environment, inclusive everything, so that every child can have an inclusive experience, “said Essien

 

He lamented that students with disabilities such as visual and hearing impairments, physical challenges, and intellectual disabilities, are often forced to learn in non-inclusive environments, making it difficult for them to succeed. He noted that lack of resources, including assistive technology and trained teachers exacerbates the problem.

 

Essien, who has taught in both Nigeria and the United States and won Maltina Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 highlighted the stark contrast between the educational system in Nigeria and the US.

 

Continuing, he said, “In the US, every student has access to technology, including chrome books and interactive boards. In Nigeria, we don’t have these resources, making it harder for students to learn.”

 

The situation is further complicated by the government’s lack of commitment to providing support for students with disabilities. “There are no provisions for out-of-school children with disabilities. They are left to beg on the streets, and eventually, they drop out of school,” Essien laments.

 

Despite these challenges, Essien said he is committed to making a difference in the lives of students with disabilities. “As a teacher, I have been able to transfer myself into somebody else’s life. That’s one of the satisfactions I get. When I see my students go on to achieve great things, I am proud.”

 

 Non-inclusive curriculum for students with disabilities 

 

A practicing psychologist and teacher, Udemeobong Akpan, said the current curricula and syllabi used in Akwa Ibom do not take into consideration students with learning needs.

 

“For instance, I have two dyslexic students, who are always struggling to fit into the mainstream system. It’s a struggle for both the students and the staff because it doesn’t meet them at the point of their needs.

 

“It’s the same effect for students with physical disabilities such as hearing impairment. A blind student shouldn’t have to take the same test written on the board, or typed out on paper like a student who has no visual impairment.

 

“Inclusive curriculum, continuous assessment methods, employment of Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) teachers and specialists, and funding for accessible infrastructure and learning aids are crucial to enhance inclusive education.

 

Funding is also critical to provide accessible infrastructure and learning aids, such as braille, hearing aids, and speech-to-text software to help alleviate the struggles for both students and teachers,” Akpan explained.

 

The poor implementation of inclusive education has exacerbated the plight of students with disabilities in public schools. Although the policy was introduced between 2016 and 2018, Joy Ubong, a social inclusion advocate said the problem has denied students with special needs access to quality education.

 

According to her, inclusive education provides students with the opportunity to learn sign languages and interact with other clusters of disabilities without discrimination.

 

“Many schools in the state lack basic facilities such as ramps for wheelchair users and sign language teachers for students with hearing impairments. My sister does not have any disability, but she attends an inclusive school and can sign perfectly and communicate with other people who have disabilities.

 

To make schools inclusive, Joy advocated for the reformation of school buildings to include ramps for wheelchair users, employment of sign language interpreters for deaf students, training of teachers on how to handle students with special needs, and providing braille materials for the visually impaired.

 

“We don’t need special schools, but an inclusive one to show that we are all human beings and we can interact and blend,” she said.

 

Commissioners go mum as governor’s aide says government is working 

 

In the course of this investigation, our correspondents reached out to the state Commissioner for Education, Idongesit Etiebiet, and her counterpart in the Ministry of Women and Social Affairs, Ini Adiakpan but they would not pick calls or respond to messages seeking information on the state government’s efforts to address the challenges of inclusive education at the Special School, Mbiaobong Etoi.

 

But the Personal Assistant to the Governor on Persons with Disabilities, Ubong Ikpe, said the government is implementing measures to boost inclusive education in the state.

 

Ikpe said the government has embarked on many projects to enhance the inclusive learning policy in select schools across the state and one of the beneficiaries of this policy is the Special Education School at Mbiaobong Etoi.

 

He added that government has renovated Christ the King School (CKS), Wellington Bassey Way, Uyo to be inclusive and provided a 100 million naira educational intervention for students with disabilities in tertiary institutions.

 

 

 

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