Unlocking the potential of visually impaired individuals is a paramount challenge that demands our immediate attention. TOP AFRICA NEWS had a candid conversation with the Executive Director of the Rwanda Union of the Blind, Dr. Donatilla Kanimba where we delved into the pressing issues surrounding education of visually impaired persons, equipment accessibility, inclusion in technical schools, and the arduous battle against limited resources and recognition of capability.
What are the current image of education for Persons with visual impairment?
The image today is that there is greater interest in the education of Persons with visual impairment, as well as in the education of individuals with special needs, compared tob20 years ago. We have teachers in the teacher training colleges who are being taught sign language and Braille, which are some of the special needs in education subjects. I think there was a time when we learned that an adapted curriculum had been set for learners with learning disabilities, mental disabilities, but it is still not in use. So that means that the government is taking interest in the education of learners with special needs, including those with visual impairment.
However, the majority of those learners with visual impairment are still in specialised schools. We are not specifically advocating for the specialised schools to be closed because we have not seen any satisfying effort in mainstream schools to include fully the learners with visual impairment. They still cannot get mathematical materials in regular schools to teach them arithmetic and mathematics. They still cannot get ways to be taught science subjects in regular schools. And the teachers who teach them, if a few teachers have picked an interest and are beginning to understand how to teach a learner with visual impairment, after a short while they will be transferred or they will want to move to another school or to leave teaching altogether. And then the learner is starting again with new teachers or teachers who had not been trained in how to include them. So it is still a big problem. But what I would say is, if we are not ready for full inclusion in schools, let us support the specialised schools.
But the problem with the specialised schools is the distance from the children’s homes and the fact that the children are going to have to leave home and stay in the residential school. So again, it is either you give up living in the family and gain a good education or you choose that your child will live with you at home but we cannot be sure of the quality of that child’s education.
So yes, education for learners with special needs and especially those with visual impairment is still a problem.
How well-equipped is the current educational system in providing quality equipment for learners with visual impairment to ensure an inclusive and effective learning experience?
It is very difficult to say that there are adequate equipment available for learners with visual impairments. Primarily, I have noticed an issue with mathematical materials for these learners. This remains true even when considering those with visual impairments who attend TVET schools or vocational training centers. You will not find, say, measuring equipment which is designed for people with visual impairment. You will not find weighing machines, scales, that are designed to help a person with visual impairment to be able to use the machine. You will not find equipment that will help the blind person if they want to train in cookery. And all these are things, they are in other parts of the world. But we don’t have an establishment in Rwanda that stocks them, that has them and will be able to even sell to learners with visual impairment or persons with visual impairment who would like to buy these materials. So we still don’t have all the equipment that we need. There is a lot of equipment that is not available.
Are learners with visual impairment currently enrolled in TVET schools? What is the current situation regarding their inclusion in TVET schools?
We have made attempts to include learners with visual impairments in TVET schools at certain points. Initially, we discovered that TVET schools were only willing to accommodate them in two specific locations. One of these locations is a community center in Gisenyi that caters specifically to learners with disabilities. The other location is Nyanza VTC and we had placed them there.
They were enrolled in knitting. However, in order for Nyanza VTC to accept them, we had to arrange for a trainer for the blind students who was also blind herself. As for the community center, they were already providing training for blind individuals, as well as other people with disabilities, and they were willing to make an effort to accommodate blind people.
So it’s not easy for the VTCs to be comfortable with accepting learners with visual impairments. However, I would say that many of the things taught at the VTCs can be learned by blind people, although it may take them a little longer in some cases. And then, of course, there is the problem of the kind of equipment and materials that people with visual impairment need, which are not available. So struggling to use what they are not able to use very well makes them even slower.
Is there any message to effectively engage well-wishers, funders, and donors to support TVET education for individuals with visual impairment?
I would greatly appreciate reaching out to individuals who possess expertise in this field, including international partners. I am aware that some international partners are involved with organizations in other countries that provide education to visually impaired learners, and they are significantly more advanced compared to us here in Rwanda.
I would like to request their assistance in introducing a specific type of training here in Rwanda. This training would be aimed at preparing the VTCs (Vocational Training Centers) and teacher training colleges. Additionally, I propose that they support RUB (Rwanda Union of the Blind) by accepting blind individuals and providing them with training. This can serve as an exemplary class, allowing others to observe the methods and techniques employed in their training. By doing so, they can witness the proper way in which blind individuals should be trained.
We require support in the form of coordinated and well-established training, which is being followed with expertise. This will enable Rwanda to effectively include and support learners with visual impairment in gaining employment, whether it be through job-seeking or self-employment.
What steps do you think should be taken to address the challenges faced by individuals with visual impairment, including the lack of recognition of their capabilities and limited financial resources to start their own projects?
Well, that is indeed quite true because I think we have had other blind people who are trained in massage trying to establish themselves in the trade. And one of the challenges they got was that when they are working in a hotel somewhere and somebody comes for massage, they do not want a blind person to be assigned to them because they think a blind person will not know how to massage them properly, which is ironic because a blind person is better at the job.
So there is some awareness raising that needs to be done here for whether they will be able to be self-employed. That is true. We may be promised support by BDF, that is the Business Development Fund, but this is support that you will get when you already have something. You do not start from zero. We have a lot of members who do not have any start-up at all. So they will need somebody to provide them with the start-up that will help them to get the loan from BDF or any other microfinance. So that means that we are starting from far off. But somehow the number of blind people who are able to start their own businesses, whether in massage or in other areas, is very small. But at least there are some. There was a time there were none. So I think we are coming very slowly, but we are coming.
The Interview was conducted by Ange de la Victoire DUSABEMUNGU