The right to free, compulsory and comprehensive primary/basic education which ensures the development of a child’s mental, physical, social and psychological wellbeing is a universal legal entitlement guaranteed to children the world over and it is also a moral claim. This right to education is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which our great nation Nigeria is signatory to, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and also to The Child Rights Act 2003 of Nigeria. Some state governments in Nigeria also have these rights enshrined such as in The 2007 Child Rights Law of Lagos State and the Lagos State Special peoples Law 2011. Unfortunately, all these provisions have not guaranteed that these rights are extended to children with special needs in Nigeria in particular children with cognitive and developmental disorders because their enforcement has been neglected by the government. The rights of the child with special needs in Nigeria is constantly violated due in part to widespread ignorance within the populace and to strongly held cultural beliefs, perceptions and superstitions amongst our people about the origins, causes or implications of a disorder or disability leading to severe discrimination, stigmatization and harmful practices against affected children. A culture unfortunately that often sees no value in educating children with special needs.
Investigations by The Child Restoration Initiative (CRI) revealed that less than 5% of children with special needs have access to the education they are entitled to by law and of this 5%, less than 1% had this right guaranteed through services provided by the government through the Universal Basic Education Scheme which guarantees free education to all primary aged pupils within the public school system. The remaining 4% accessed this often expensive service through privately run special schools or service providers.
CRI further found no federally funded program and only ONE state government sponsored scheme in the whole nation, and of the services provided by the said government, we found it to be lacking in fulfilling its goals of providing a comprehensive education. Our investigations exposed a deeply flawed understanding of the educational needs of children with special needs, a dearth of qualified professionals including special educators, speech language pathologists, occupational, physical and music therapists etc.; a total disregard for the dignity of the individuals enrolled, neglect of existing infrastructure and facilities and an unusable and unsuitable curriculum with impassable standardized tests. All the units visited were in an abysmal state of disorder and chaos, overpopulated and under staffed with absolutely no learning taking place. One of such places was a classroom with just one teacher and 50 pupils all with different special needs; ranging in age from 4years to 24 years with absolutely no additional teaching or non-teaching support. The ‘best’ scenario we found was a unit consisting of 7 teachers with 99 students with different challenges and one care – giver. While we thought the services to be meager at best, we were encouraged by the initiative shown by the State in remembering children with special needs and trying to include them in the state educational policies, albeit, through a flawed system but we wondered what manner of education the government expect the children to acquire in such places and questioned our government’s commitment to the children’s legal entitlements.
Children with special needs are entitled to an education tailored to their needs and it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that their rights already enshrined in our laws are granted, and to develop, as well as provide a tailored national education curriculum/policy for children with special needs that will be implemented nationwide, in addition, to establish a special needs unit in all existing or future government funded public schools and ensure such schools equally benefit from the upgrade and restructuring presently going on in the public schools. The special-needs units will need an increase of ably qualified professionals that will administer to the children, a rigorous training and train-the-trainer program to ensure a continuous supply of qualified teachers, therapists and caregivers who are up to speed on universal standards of teaching and care and to enforce a monitoring system to ensure best practices.
A part of what CRI does is to provide educational and learning support to one of such units in a public school in our community which we have adopted but this in itself is not sufficient within the existing structure and with the existing curriculum they are forced to work with which still impedes meaningful learning. We have prepared a position paper making the case for the provision of tailored educational and related services for children with special needs within the public school system using an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) as part of the services provided by the State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB) under the aegis of the Universal Basic Education Scheme ready for presentation and dialogue with all relevant government stakeholders.
CRI has also received approval to run a pilot scheme hopefully that can be replicated nationwide with 50 students with different special needs that we currently provide learning support. To this effect, a Special Education Consultancy Group has been commissioned to assess the educational needs of the children, develop an individualized education plan (IEP) based on those needs, recruit, train and retrain the teaching and non-teaching staff required to suitably care for the students and to supervise and monitor the administration of services to ensure optimum performance.
In order to do this successfully, we are looking to partner with interested parties within the private sector as part of their corporate social responsibility act because we truly believe that education is the greatest gift you can give an individual and also that educating a child with special needs is not only a right that cannot be denied but also a great tool for helping affected persons identify, develop and maximize their potentials.