With the 49-member Presidential Working Party on Education Reform completing its public consultations this month, it is time to look at the state of disability rights in our schools and places of learning.

Kenya has approximately 13 million children in our primary and secondary schools. While the education ministry has recorded roughly 200,000 students with disabilities, the real figure could be much higher. Stigma and cost lock out an estimated fifty per cent more children. Most learn in either special needs schools like the Thika School for the Blind or in regular schools with special units like the unit for hearing and visually impaired students at Kilimani Primary School in Nairobi.

Special needs schools are often located far from children’s homes leading to segregation, isolation, and stigma. Tragically, both types of learning institutions are underfunded and lack the necessary infrastructure. Most children with disabilities find daily transport challenging and costly.

Specialised teachers, interpreters and caregivers are all too few, and an accessible built environment is out of reach for most. Most classrooms and washrooms lack ramps, adapted desks, toilets, and doors. Learning materials are very expensive and place children with disabilities at an acute disadvantage. For instance, a school textbook that costs Sh200 will cost Sh2,000 in braille. A braille pen can cost up to Sh100,000 compared to Sh10 for a pencil. Education ministry capitation covers Sh12,000 for each primary school student, but for children with disabilities, the real cost of quality education is Sh65,000, three times more.

Driven by these conditions, dropout rates are the highest among girls with disabilities, followed by boys with disabilities, according to the 2021 Uweso learning assessment report. If these are not big enough challenges, special needs grants have been delayed for three months now.

While all this must alarm us, we can take some comfort in the progress over the last four years. In 2018, the Kenya Cabinet approved the Persons with Disabilities Bill. In the same year, the education ministry developed a new special needs policy, curriculum and established the Kenya Institute for Specialised Education. These initiatives have given inclusive schooling a major boost.

The Persons with Disabilities Bill seeks to expand affirmative action, frame disability as a human rights issue, and hold national and county governments accountable for ending stigma and discrimination. While the Bill has gone through National Assembly readings, it awaits attention from the Senate. Swift parliamentary approval and implementation of this bill and the new universal design Building Code (2022) are game-changers.

State initiatives are matched by civic organisations like the Kilimanjaro Blind Trust Africa, which provide access to digital braille literacy technology and skills to 3,000 learners across 250 schools in Kenya and East Africa. The Presidential Working Party must build on these achievements and ensure the Competency-Based Curriculum directly addresses the disability stigma and denial that exists in so many homes, schools, and communities today.

The Working Party can also generate accurate data about learners with disabilities. It is still unclear what happens to children with disabilities after they drop out of primary and secondary schools. The Working Party must make clear recommendations on what is needed for them to compete equally with the rest of their generation. Perhaps active citizens could voluntarily map their neighbourhoods for children with disabilities struggling to fit in and connect them to the closest school.

As the Working Party retreats to write its report, let them keep in mind that all that stands between children with disabilities and first-time Senator and singer Crystal Asige is an equal opportunity to quality education. All our children with disabilities must be given this chance.

7,000 head teachers are expected to attend the 18th Primary Schools Head Teachers Association (KEPSHA) conference in three weeks’ time. Let teachers, learners and policymakers use this conference and the Presidential Working Party report to take inclusive education to the next level.

Irũngũ Houghton and Emily Maranga are Amnesty International Kenya’s Executive Director and Human Rights Education Manager, respectively. They write in their personal capacity. Emails: [email protected] and [email protected]