Changing minds: SEN in Africa


Sonia Aboagye looks at the challenges of ensuring access to education for children with disabilities in Ghana

It’s thought that there are between 90 and 150 million children with disabilities in the developing world. An estimated 90 per cent of them do not attend school.

In Ghana, many of those with the severest disabilities may not be allowed to live beyond birth or are kept hidden away in their homes, away from the critical and superstitious eyes of a society which believes that disabilities are caused by curses or evil spirits (Gadagbui, 2010), that children with disabilities are a source of shame, and that they are “objects of charity” who are “incapable”, “economically unproductive” and of “diminished value” (Global Partnership for Education, 2018).

Children with disabilities encounter numerous practical barriers to accessing schooling, such as getting money to pay for uniforms and access to suitable transportation, especially from rural areas. Many school buildings are physically inaccessible and lack appropriate seating. Toileting is a black hole – literally. Many schools do not have toilets and those which exist may be nothing more than pit latrines which can be perilous for children with or without disabilities to access.

Learning opportunities are problematic due to large class sizes, lack of skills and knowledge among educators, and little time to provide tailored support. Children with disabilities have been found to receive less attention from teachers compared to their typically developing peers (Obeng, 2007). Many teachers, including those with SEN training, have no idea what to do with children who cannot speak or who struggle to grip a pencil. These children may also face social ostracisation from their peers. Some parents have removed their non-disabled children from schools to avoid “contamination” by disabled pupils who are placed there. These factors may explain why children with disabilities are less likely to go to school, are more likely to drop-out, and have lower primary school completion rates than non-disabled peers (WHO, 2004).

Increasing attendance

The goal of inclusive education has been adopted by many countries since the 1994 UNESCO Salamanca Statement. The Ghana Education Strategic Plan 2003 aimed to increase school attendance of pupils with disabilities to 50 per cent by 2008, 80 per cent by 2012, and 100 per cent by 2015. However, by 2011/12, only 26,207 of the estimated 862,160 children with disabilities aged four to fourteen years (UIS, 2013) attended schools – approximately three per cent. 11,800 of the pupils with identified “mild to moderate disabilities” (visual, hearing and intellectual disabilities) were in schools without support. Those attending special schools had to wait several years to get a special school place, often not attending until aged ten to 11 years. By 2011/12, only 34 of 170 districts (MoE, 2012) provided inclusive education and they reached only 8,000 students.

In 2015, Ghana launched an inclusive education policy and action plan to promote access and learning for all children, particularly those from excluded backgrounds including street children, orphans, children with HIV/Aids, autism or multiple disabilities. As part of this policy, all children with “mild to moderate disabilities” are to be included in mainstream schools, with special schools being for those with severe needs or as resource centres providing equipment and expertise to local schools. Despite laudable goals, and some developments in provision of regional assessment centres, a two-credit SEN module on all initial teacher training courses and sensitisation of communities, NGO’s continue to lead the way in provision for children with disabilities (UNESCO, 2016) – especially in relation to children with severe-to profound multiple learning disabilities, who present some of the greatest challenges to inclusive education.

In July 2019, UKAid funded a project led by the NGO’s Cerebral Palsy Africa and Multikids Africa. Entitled, Enabling access to education for children with cerebral palsy, it involved SEN teachers from each of the ten regions of Ghana taking part in a three-week workshop where they learned about cerebral palsy (CP) and were taught how to make resources including special seating and standing frames using Appropriate Paper-based Technology. Teachers are expected to disseminate this knowledge to their colleagues and will be followed up by trainers with onsite visits and online support. 

Bernard’s story

It may take time for the impact of these initiatives to take effect. Meanwhile, life continues unchanged for children like Bernard, a six-year-old boy with intellectual disability and spastic quadriplegia stemming from cerebral palsy. Bernard was identified by the Kekeli Foundation, an NGO in the Volta Region of Ghana. Bernard has never been to school and is unlikely ever to do so. He lives with his mother and grandmother in a tiny village perched on the side of Adaklu, a mountain on the outskirts of Ho. Bernard’s father abandoned his mother when he discovered she had given birth to a disabled child. Since then, she has single-handedly raised their son through growing and selling tomatoes. Every day since he was an infant, Bernard has been carried on his mother’s back along the steep paths and trails that criss-cross the mountain. While she weeds, plants and harvests, he lies in a metal washing bowl propped up by pillows. 

Bernard is non-verbal, but makes occasional vocalisations and sometimes smiles; his mother has learned to interpret his small repertoire of sounds and gestures and is responsive to his needs. Bernard is dependent on her for all activities – from feeding to toileting and bathing. Bernard cannot access education because schools require children like him to be accompanied by a carer who is subsidised by the child’s family. Bernard’s family simply don’t have the money. As Bernard has grown older and heavier, his mother has found it harder to navigate the steep mountain with him on her back. It is unclear what will happen when she becomes too old to carry him. 

Muwunyo – the “basket girl”

Even when a school place has been secured for a child, attendance is often problematic. In parts of Ho, the livelihoods of many families are dependent on subsistence farming and market trading. During planting season, harvesting or on market days, children may be absent from school because there is no-one available to take them there. Ultimately, family survival supersedes educational aspirations. There is also the perceived benefit of educating children with disabilities. Muwunyo (pictured above), known as the “basket girl”, has athetoid CP and has lived the majority of her life in a plastic basket in the corner of a room in her family’s mud-brick home in Abutia Tetei, a rural area about 20 minutes outside of Ho. She is multilingual and can understand and speak three local dialects, but her only access to education came when she was 16 years old and she was supported to attend school for a year. Despite this being a positive experience for her, her grandmother decided to withdraw her after a year because she couldn’t see the benefit of it as she would never get a job. Additionally, the family was burdened by the time and expense of getting her to school and back each day.

Selorm’s story

Another perspective on inclusive education is provided by Selorm, a 28-year-old male shoe repairer, also based in Abutia Tetei. He was born with ataxic CP and he always dreamt of going to university and becoming a teacher. At basic school, his educators felt he had lots of potential, but he was hampered at junior and senior high school by teachers who were unable to adapt teaching methods to suit him, implement classroom strategies or facilitate exam concessions such as oral exams and access to a scribe or reader. During his high school exams, his exam centre was not aware that he had a disability until he spoke up. Hearing his unclear speech, they felt sorry for him and gave him ten minutes extra time, although he qualified for time and half because of his disabilities. When this was later queried, the examiners reported that according to their guidelines, only the visually impaired qualified for extra time. Since Selorm was not blind, they didn’t feel his disability was severe enough to warrant extra time. 

Selorm’s dreams of attending university were thwarted and he eventually received a government grant which he used to set up a roadside shoe repair shop called Ebe ye yie (It shall be well). More recently, he has also set up a poultry farm. In a quest to use his experiences to benefit others, he has become involved in self-advocacy and is Ho West District’s self-advocate representative for Inclusion Ghana (part of the Ghana Federation of Disablity Organisations). He educates parents of children with disabilities about the importance of sending their children to school and has formed support groups for people with disabilities within the Ho West District. 

If we are to bring about the shift needed to make inclusive education and a more inclusive society a reality for all in Ghana, we are going to need the combined efforts of individuals, NGOs and government agencies all working together with local communities. We will also need to continue to tackle the negative attitudes towards disability that are still prevalent in Ghanaian Society today.   

About the author

Sonia Aboagye is a UK-trained speech and language therapist and teacher. She is the Head of the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences, University of Health and Allied Sciences, Ho, Volta Region, Ghana.



Photo courtesy of the Kekeli Foundation.


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Sonia Aboagye
Author: Sonia Aboagye

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