KAMPALA, UGANDA — Senyomo holds a pen with his toes and neatly prints letters on a piece of paper. The secondary school student, who asked that only his last name be used for fear of discrimination, says he was born with no hands. He is one of four special needs students who attend Kibuli Secondary School, in Kampala, Uganda’s capital.
This year, he’s been given an extra 45 minutes to complete his year-end exams. He says the Uganda National Examinations Board, a national assessment agency, also gave him a special chair and desk. Made from the same the wooden material as his classmates’ seats and tables, Senyomo’s desk is located slightly below his chair to allow him to write comfortably.
“The special chair helped me,” says Senyomo, who felt it would be unnecessary prior to the November exams.
Despite laws and policies such as the Uganda National Institute of Special Education Act, which are designed to protect the rights of children with disabilities and ensure that they receive a good education, special needs learners in Uganda continue to experience challenges.
This year, officials took a step to change that. With visits to more than 480 schools, UNEB staff provided special needs students and their teachers and parents with information on exam registration and requesting special assistance. While school administrators are reporting an increase in the number of special needs students participating in year-end exams, local nonprofits say there is more work to be done.
A 2016 government report puts the number of secondary school students with special needs at 8,494, the majority of whom have visual impairments. But local experts say this figure could be higher.
Since 2013, UNEB has given students with partial sight large-print exams, says Daniel Alenyo, senior examinations officer for special needs education with UNEB. Those who are blind get braille exams, dyslexic students receive assistance from transcribers and students with asthma or epilepsy have extra time for each exam, Alenyo says.
But many teachers and students have no idea that they can ask his organization for support when completing exam registration, and others did not know how, he says.
UNEB started hosting information sessions at schools across the country in July but introduced the Access Arrangement Form for candidates with Special Educational Needs in 2017. Alenyo says the two-page document was modified in February of this year. The form, which is available online, now has sections where school staff can describe the details of a registrant’s disability, including whether the disability is temporary or permanent, and request the support needed during exams.
Once the form is filled out and submitted to UNEB, Alenyo says it takes about three months for his agency to approve or deny the requests.
This year, more special needs students participated in year-end exams than in previous years. Alenyo says 1,487 secondary school students with special needs students registered for exams in 2016. That number has increased by 276 this year. All 1,763 students were given some form of support during the exams.
Jackson Twinomucunguzi, a teacher at Kampala School for the Physically Handicapped, says UNEB officials came to his school back in July, ahead of exam registration, and taught staff how to fill out the form.
Twinomucunguzi filled out the form on behalf of nine students who he says needed the help of transcribers during their final exams in November.
“Given their different special needs, some pupils are unable to write legibly,” he says.
But for local child-rights advocates and educators, guaranteeing the success of special needs students goes beyond UNEB’s information sessions.
Examiners should consider a different grading system for students with special needs, says Priscilla Kisakye, a program officer with Uganda Society for Disabled Children. She says the current grading system stops many students from advancing to the next level of their education.
“Many of our disabled children are not able to continue,” she says.
Patrick Synole, information and advocacy officer with local nonprofit Uganda National Action on Physical Disability, says students need support in the classroom, not only in the exam room.
“There is [a] need for wide doors and ramps for children in wheelchairs,” Synole says, adding that the lack of such infrastructure can limit student attendance.
Twinomucunguzi, who’s been teaching for 21 years, would like to see more teachers trained to work with special needs students in the workforce.