Rwanda: Empowering visually impaired to access education

Francine UWAYISABA

Historically, individuals with visual impairments were often marginalized and excluded from formal education. Over the years, the situation has improved significantly, shaped by changing societal attitudes, advancements in educational practices, and the advocacy efforts of individuals and organizations.

For sure, significant efforts were made to educate some individuals with disabilities, but these were often based on charitable or religious motives rather than a systematic approach to education. After the 1994 genocide against Tutsi, Rwanda embarked on a process of rebuilding and reconciliation, with a renewed emphasis on promoting inclusive education and addressing the needs of marginalized groups, including individuals with disabilities. In recent decades, Rwanda has made significant strides in promoting inclusive education and improving access to schooling for students with disabilities, including those with visual impairments.

Dieudonne IRAMUMPAYE, Head teacher of Blessing School for the Visual Impaired located in Musanze district, a school that empower the visually impaired and blind to access education and attain their individual potential explained that what they do when a student is accepted to study in this school is to teach mobility and orientation within the school so that he or she may walk independently.

“After that, the Primary one students start their first step of placing pegs in a wooden board, creating braille letters and then start studying math, Kinyarwanda, social studies, religion and other languages. In primary two, students start to write braille letters and numbers using slate to write simple words and use Cuba rhythm (braille calculating board) while studying math. In primary two, students start to master braille so they use slate and stylus learn how to use braille numbers to add, subtract, multiply or divide. In this class, they learn double consonant and writing phrases using Perkins machines. In the primary four, five and six they use Perkins machines, orbit reader and computers with Jaws,” he explained.

He added that regardless different challenges, since the school started, all of their students have remarkably scored high at national examination at maximum level that they continued in secondary schools and they are earning high grades though some of them are in inclusive schools where they share classes with students without disabilities.

“We hope that when they continue to work hard, they will once become lawyers, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, professors, and researchers, among other roles, making significant contributions to their respective fields, developers of assistive technologies that enhance accessibility for themselves and others, playing pivotal roles in advocating for disability rights, accessibility, and social inclusion. Simply, they will make meaningful contributions to society across diverse domains because being visually impaired is different from minds blindness,” Dieudonne said.

Figure 1:  Visual impaired Students using orbit reader while reading the notes

Figure 2: Visual impaired students using computers with jaws in ICT room

Figure 3: A primary 6 student writing her notes using Perkins machine preparing her national examinations

Despite the progress recorded, challenges remain in ensuring equitable access to education and support services for students with visual impairments in Rwanda. These challenges include insufficient resources, limited trained personnel, physical barriers, and attitudinal barriers related to stigma and discrimination and many more others.

“The school is too small to host more students, so we wish that we have a big building to welcome more students and make it inclusive to all students, with and without disabilities. We need disability specialized teachers and modern materials for them,” Dieudonne said.

Regarding the students, he added that adaptation to learning materials and braille literacy is still an issue because it is time-consuming and require specialized knowledge and resources.

Marceline GATO a 30 years old who holds a Bachelor degree from the University of Rwanda, is a Human right activist and now a news presenter at Radio Rwanda. On the challenges she has faced and today’s situation, she said that there is a tangible improvement in between. “At our ages, we faced numerous obstacles that made it difficult for us to receive a quality education”.

Figure 4: Marceline Gato, a blind woman

She said there are lack of accessibility in schools, few Braille materials available and even fewer teachers trained in Braille instruction. Moreover, there are fewer special schools which are very expensive. “So, we used to go in mixed schools. Leaving home and navigating the streets independently was daunting along with discrimination and exclusion in educational settings. “My journey has not been easy, but it has made me stronger and more determined to create a more inclusive society for future generations of students with disabilities in Rwanda.

 “Though there are still challenges, but at least there are trained teachers who are not visual impaired, braille materials and computers with jaws are available and it is clear that efforts to promote inclusive education and address the needs of individuals with disabilities are ongoing priorities for the government and its partners.”

Dieudonne added that there is still a long journey to go to have full accessibility of education for blind persons in Rwanda like training and providing professional development opportunities for a number of teachers to effectively support students with visual impairments in the classroom, ensure that educational materials, including textbooks, worksheets, and instructional resources, are available in accessible formats such as Braille, large print, and digital text compatible with screen readers and make all schools inclusive because special schools are expensive.

Additionally, students need access to assistive technologies like magnification software to facilitate their participation in classroom activities and independent learning. “At the top of that, involve parents and caregivers of students with visual impairments in the education process, and provide them with information and support to advocate for their children’s needs and we wish that the government and partners to work towards creating a more inclusive education system that provides equal opportunities for students with visual impairments to learn, grow, and succeed”.

The school opened in 2015 with five visual impaired students on the suggestion of parents of a girl named Blessing who was born visually impaired and the school is named after her. To date, it is owned and financially supported by Hillside Hope, a Rwandan Religious based organization of which objective is to promote education for children with disabilities. This year, the school has thirty (30) students with visual impairment from different district, boys and girls from primary one to six.

Figure 5: Blessing school students with teachers

Figure 7: Dieudone IRAMUMPAYE, Blessing School headteacher

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