Challenges special needs children face amid COVID-19
While parents complain that their wards are left out of e-learning for various reasons, the situation is worse for special children whose needs for specialist education are not being met because of poor facilities, untrained manpower and poverty reports OMOLOLA AFOLABI.
Since his birth 12 years ago, Abdulrahman Odaranile has been struggling with three life-despairing challenges – hearing and speech impairment, and an incomplete formation of his spinal cord.
These challenges notwithstanding, the primary two pupil of Wesley School for the Hearing Impaired in Surulere, Lagos, is resolute about becoming an electrical engineer.
“Abdulrahman likes to fix things in the house and they will begin to work properly again,” his mother, Shakirat, a secondary school teacher said of her child’s ingenuity. “Most times, he really shocks me as to how he even knows these gadgets are broken down at all.
He also likes to draw and paint. As a matter of fact, he came second in a talent display competition he participated in sometime last year,” she added proudly.
Mrs. Odaranile is determined to assist her son realise his engineering dream and has been living up to it since he started school at five. She wakes up at 3a.m. to prepare him for school; takes him to school early; and helps with his school work.
Though caring for Abdulrahman, his two sisters, and working full-time has been daunting, Mrs. Odaranile is encouraged by his excellent school grades. She is proud of how he outperforms some peers who do not have multiple disabilities like him.
However, with the COVID-19 -induced school closures, Abdulrahman has hardly been learning. Most days, he is confined to his wheel chair in their Ilasamaja home.
Although the Lagos State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB) announced classes for special needs pupils, the classes were yet to commence as of Tuesday, June 16, when this reporter visited the family – about three months since the government shut schools. Radio and television lessons began for regular pupils on various stations March ending.
Mrs. Odaranile said she learnt the lessons for special pupils would start soon. However, they would not benefit her son as they would only focus on primaries four and five pupils.
“Now that the classes have been scheduled to start, it is only for primaries four and five which he obviously cannot benefit from. And if they eventually begin the class for his level, power (supply) here is never stable, so the burden solely rests on us during the lockdown,” she lamented.
As a stop-gap measure, Mrs. Odaranile has been teaching Abdurahman with his sister, Fatima’s lesson notes. She has been offering classes online. This has helped the family make some reprieve for their education-hungry child though it has not been easy for Mrs. Odaranile.
“This hasn’t been easy because as a teacher myself, I have to juggle coaching him, which is usually at a slower pace, with my job. The attention I would have paid to my work which normally would have been shared by his teachers now has to be on me.”
Another parent, Mary Ifelola said being confined in a wheel chair all day was affecting her son, Victor Omokore, who has cerebral palsy.
She said the 20-year-old, who attends Atunda-Olu School in Surulere Lagos, gets moody often.
“At the moment, there are no remote classes for his category of students. The only thing he does is to sit and watch TV all day.
Victor gets excited when he sees other children in school. He has been quite laid back since he is home, and sometimes he gets angry for no reason,” she said.
Grim future for special needs pupils
Many children with learning disabilities are in Abdulrahman’s shoes in Lagos, Nigeria’s most-populated state and home to 20 million people.
There are concerns the pandemic would further increase the number of out-of-school children in Nigeria. Already, the country leads the world with the highest number of children out of school – 13 million. According to USAID, about six million of these children live with disabilities.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in its drive for inclusive education charged education providers to meet the diverse needs of all learners so they can succeed.
Nigeria’s National Policy on Education also mandates the provision of quality education to children with special needs. However, this policy remains a mirage with special needs children being left behind especially during the global health emergency.
Cassandra Nwokoporo, a visually-impaired 18-year-old pupil of Queen’s College, Yaba is being left behind her peers in school.
Queen’s College holds online classes on the school’s portal but they are usually videos which puts the aspiring broadcaster at great disadvantage.
“There are no audio lessons for us who are not sighted and it is usually very difficult to get along. YouTube is an extremely data consuming application and the fact that I don’t get the most out of the lessons makes it quite painful.
“I can’t take assignments and assessments tests because of the lack of audio recording devices. While in school we usually submit our assignments in the resource room.
But being home, I have not been able to do all of that. I only hope I do not have issues when I return to school,” she told this reporter in her Ijesha, Surulere, family home.
Although Queen’s College practises inclusive education – especially for visually-impaired pupils, the school lacks adequate facilities for them.
Cassandra has issues with Mathematics in her school. She said she and her peers are unable to pursue their interest in science because the school lacks the facilities.
“My visually-impaired colleagues interested in the sciences can’t pursue their ambitions because there are no facilities compatible with their needs.”
Cassandra is preparing for the Basic Education Certificate Examination which has been postponed because of the pandemic. She believes she can prepare well with the right support.
“With the right support from both the government and individuals, I am confident these challenges will be surmounted,” she said with a smile.
If only there was regular power supply, 16-year-old Timothy Olaiya would not miss out so much. But with epileptic power supply in his area, Olaiya, who has mobility challenges, said he was unable to follow the radio and television classes because his parents cannot fuel their generator as they are out of job due to the pandemic.
“I have been missing out on the television classes and there are no batteries for TVs yet and my area is largely deficient in power supply, sometimes, we go weeks without power.”
Pandemic affecting professional support
The Festus Fajemilo Foundation, founded by Afolabi Fajemilo and his wife, to support children with hydrocephalus and spina bifida like their 14-year-old son, Festus, has had to suspend support services to parents this period.
Pre-COVID-19, Afolabi Fajemilo said the foundation which was established in 2006 and collaborates with the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) and the Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital (OAUTH), Ile-Ife to render support services to special needs children, was planning training for non-special teachers in collaboration with the Lagos State Government.
“Before the pandemic, we were working with the state government on what we call co-operative education, which is bringing special teachers alongside regular teachers as we discovered a shortage of special education in inclusive schools.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made us put everything on hold; we would have completed the process by now. However, we are not reneging on our appeal to the state government to ensure the accessibility of the e-learning programmes to all categories of learners, and the implementation of the Lagos State Inclusive Education Policy,” he said.
Managing Director of Dyslexia Nigeria, Dr. Adrienne Tikolo, said special needs children have been deprived of special intervention programmes because of the pandemic.
“A lot of children learn by close tutoring; they are taught by professionals who understand their unique differences, information processing and learning style.
In these unprecedented times, parents and guardians have had to step into these shoes but they have neither the time nor the expertise,” she said.
To cater to their needs, Tikolo said the centre has been using virtual platforms such as Zoom.
She called on the government to train teachers and improve technology to teach the children.
“Government should carry out additional pre-employment and in-service teacher training to recognise the different learning needs of children in the classroom.
“There is also a need to incorporate assistive technology, more interactive learning tools into the teaching of special needs children. The curriculum of teachers at training should be reviewed to ensure they are tech-compliant,” she said.
Child Psychiatrist and Public Health Physician from the Child and Adolescent Health Service Centre of the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Lagos, Dr. Mashudat Bello-Mojeed said not addressing the needs of special needs children during the pandemic could have adverse effect when schools resume.
“We had myriads of problems before the pandemic and it has not been easy for parents and caregivers stepping into the shoes of special educators now that the children are compulsorily at home.
“Many of them do not even have access to specialised health care workers they had when schools were open. This is largely due to the financial capacity of their parents; they also do not have drugs or medications.
“Some of them only have difficulty in some fragmented learning aspects; some of them get quite aggressive and irritable, so they all need specific education and also have individualised specialists.”
Chairman, Lagos SUBEB, Wahab Alawiye-King, noted that the pandemic had created challenges but the board had managed to carry all students along.
Alawiye-King acknowledged the collaboration with Festus Fajemilo Foundation in areas of capacity building for teachers and all e-learning instructors on the usage of disability learning skills.
He said that 31 inclusive schools and five special schools which include Modupe-Cole, Atunda-Olu, Wesley 1&2 and National Orthopedic Hospital, have all leveraged the radio and instructional programmes to ensure that learning continues.
Support for this report was provided by Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism with funding support from Free Press Unlimited.
Challenges special needs children face amid COVID-19