January 26, 2015
ACCRA, GHANA – Courage Senator, 14, was tired of being teased by his peers and punished by his teachers for his poor performance in school.
“Most of my friends ended up making fun of me all the time when I got an assignment wrong,” Courage says. “And the teachers always punished me when I didn’t get their assignments right.”
The punishment generally consisted of kneeling for long hours with hands raised. He was also subjected to caning, in which a teacher strikes a student on the buttocks with a rattan cane.
So, two years ago, at age 11, Courage dropped out of school.
Courage, who grew up in Kpando, in the Volta region of southeast Ghana, now lives on the streets of Kaneshie Market, one of the busiest sections of Accra, the capital.
Courage’s poor performance in school wasn’t for lack of effort, he says; he just didn’t understand what was being taught.
“I was failing in mathematics and the English subjects,” he says. “My teachers did not force me to repeat classes. Rather, they kept punishing me for my poor performance in class.”
Courage now knows that he is dyslexic.
He worked on the streets, running errands for the market women and helping transport drivers offload cargo. While working, he was approached by a counselor from a then-new nongovernmental organization called Special Attention Project, or SAP.
Representatives of Accra-based SAP scour Kaneshie, a suburb of Accra, for children like Courage.
“We look out for children who have dropped out of school and are living independently in the streets,” says Ishmael Hammond, social worker and awareness officer for SAP. “We also look out for children who are not able to write their names or the letters of the alphabet. These are some signs and symptoms of children who have a learning difficulty.”
Counselors bring children from the streets into the SAP center, founded in 2008, to conduct diagnostic tests and assessments to identify learning disabilities, Hammond says. Then they invite students to study at the center, where they are paired with tutors who carry out individualized learning plans – a departure from the traditional group setting.
There are many children like Courage on the streets of Accra, says Margaretha Ubels, project coordinator of SAP. Children with learning disabilities frequently drop out, even when they have normal intelligence, she says.
Dyslexic students like Courage, who confuse the letters “b” and “d,” write upside down, and have poor concentration and hand-eye coordination, face a lot of discomfort in school, Ubels says.
“They get teased a lot in school by their peers,” Ubels says. “The teachers end up beating them all the time because they always get the assignments wrong.”
Learning disabilities are not commonly acknowledged in Ghana. The Persons with Disability Act of 2006, which provides for the educational and employment needs of people with disabilities, does not define disability. It does not specifically recognize intellectual disabilities.
But a new initiative, the Inclusive Education Policy, aims to change the educational system, facilitating better learning experiences for all Ghanaian children. The innovative policy aims to improve educational opportunities for all marginalized children, including children with disabilities and the very poor.
While there are special schools for children with visual and hearing disabilities, the Special Education Division of the Ghana Education Service does not currently offer special testing or placement for children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder.
SAP targets children who are “slow learners” or have diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disabilities.
SAP operates an educational center for out-of-school children like Courage at Kaneshie. The center provides individualized education programs in reading, writing and math in hopes of reintegrating children into school. SAP representatives say they are hopeful the new education policy will bring the children they work with into the fold of mainstream education.
Tens of thousands of Ghanaian children are failing out of the education system. In 2009, just under 61,500 children were living on the streets of Accra, according to a census conducted by the Department of Social Welfare and Ricerca e Cooperazione, an ltalian NGO. Forty-two percent of those children identified themselves as school dropouts; the rest said they had never been to school.
There is little data available on the learning difficulties these children face, Ubels says. The census found that just 17 percent of them could read; it did not address the causes of illiteracy.
Diana Tawiah, 12, also dropped out of school when the ridicule from her peers became overwhelming.
Like Courage, Diana is dyslexic. She too studies with tutors at SAP.
“I like coming to SAP because I have made new friends who don’t worry me or make fun of me,” she says. “The cartoons and games we play here are also very helpful. I haven’t [had] that at home or in my school.”
SAP is the only organization in Accra focusing on children with learning disabilities, Hammond says.
SAP educates intellectually impaired children, some of whom cannot perform everyday academic functions, he says.
The program also targets slow learners – children of normal to high intelligence whose disabilities restrict their performance in traditional classrooms.
In Ghana, children of normal intelligence who have learning disabilities are not formally recognized as having special educational needs, says Bernard Boahen, executive director of SPLenDID, an expertise center for specific learning difficulties.
The Inclusive Education Policy, which debuted in August, will allow children with intellectual impairments and learning disabilities to engage in mainstream education, Boahen says.
The policy, which is being piloted in the Eastern Region, will equip schools with new resources. It also aims to change community perceptions about students with disabilities, Boahen says.
Created by education policymakers and a consortium of NGOs that included UNICEF, the policy “requires schools to recognize that all children can learn, that all children have a right to learn and that different children learn differently,” according to the UNICEF press release announcing the initiative last August.
Ubels, of SAP, is hopeful the policy will reduce the dropout rate.
“What we have found is that a lot of the children that we see on the streets of Accra are children who have been to school in the past,” she says. “Because of their learning difficulty in keeping up with schoolwork, they did not get any help and later stop school altogether – and after that, they come to the streets.”
In 2013, SAP taught 104 children, 14 of whom have already been integrated back into their homes and schools, Hammond says.
Recently, the program has been teaching 10 to 16 children a day, he says. It reintegrated 23 children into school in 2014.
In addition to educational challenges, children with learning disabilities face violent punishment by teachers and stigma stemming from the belief that learning disabilities are caused by witchcraft.
More than 80 percent of Ghanaian children have been caned at school, says Hammond, quoting a report by Ghana’s Department of Children and an advocacy group, Children and Youth in Broadcasting. Various factors, including wide acceptance of corporal punishment, traditional beliefs and overcrowded classrooms, contribute to the practice, Hammond says.
Students with learning disabilities are often subjected to violence, Ubels says.
“Professionally, people don’t know how to help children with learning difficulties,” she says. “In the school system, there are no procedures, structures or resources for children with specific learning disabilities. Children are being beaten all the time because they can’t pay attention in class.”
Learning disabilities are so misunderstood here that parents and teachers often attribute a child’s inability to learn to supernatural factors, Hammond says.
“It will also surprise you to know that some parents relate their children’s inability to perform well in school to witchcraft, which is very sad,” he says.
To curb violence and promote understanding of different learning patterns, SAP provides comprehensive educational programs to children living on the street who have learning disabilities. An average day at the center includes individual classes, computer-based learning cartoons, lunch and crafts.
The children also learn hygiene and income-generating skills such as beading, Hammond says.
“We try to bring these practical lessons to them because most of these children sometimes don’t take education as a priority, and for some of them they feel it is too late to go back to school and catch up with their colleagues,” he says. “Creating crafts such as beads-making empowers the children to have a source of living.”
In addition to providing high-quality education to its charges, SAP aims to reunite children with their families.
“Most of these children have given up on going home because parents have also used the wrong approach in solving their problems,” Hammond says.
SAP is successfully elevating students’ academic capacity and changing mind-sets about learning disabilities, he says.
“We have been able to reintegrate a number of children with their families and societies,” Hammond says. “Other children have also improved upon their literacy skills.”
SAP is also creating an in-service training on learning disabilities for all teachers at the basic level in Accra. The four trainings scheduled this year will address different disabilities, Hammond says.
Hammond hopes the training program will soon be included in the national curriculum for educators.
Hammond’s personal history motivates him to embrace his mission.
“When I was growing up, I was also a difficult child,” he says. “It takes extra attention for children like this to be able to grow up properly and be useful citizens in the society.”
Courage plans to continue coming to SAP, where he says he is eating well and learning a lot. He dreams of becoming a minister.
“The new friends I have made here don’t tease me or make fun of me,” Courage says. “That makes me very comfortable and free.”
GPJ translated some interviews from Ewe.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to comply with the Global Press Style Guide.