By Felix Khanoba
Thousands of physically-challenged children across the country are at risk of missing out on education as many of the government-run special schools supposed to meet their educational needs are on the verge of collapse.
The schools, which were specifically built for persons with physical challenges including Down Syndrome, have received N10.6 billion grant from the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) within a period of ten years but with little or nothing on ground to show for it.
A document made available to The AUTHORITY by UBEC and signed by its Director of Social Mobilisation, Bello Kagara, shows that the Commission disbursed over N10 billion to the 36 states and Federal Capital Territory (FCT) between 2006 and 2016 to support special education, with private providers receiving a significant chunk of N3.06 billion of the money.
According to UBEC, the special education fund is two percent of its consolidated revenue from the federation account and it is disbursed annually to provide infrastructure like classrooms, boreholes, instructional materials, teaching aids and other deliverables in schools for those with disabilities. The fund is different from the 50 per cent matching grant released to states to support the basic education sub-sector, where UBEC has disbursed over N300 billion as at August 21, 2017.
A recent visit to some of the special education schools located in the Federal Capital Territory, Nasarawa, Edo and Anambra states revealed a sordid state of affairs. Apart from the commonly identified problems of students not living in decent condition and lack access to health services or proper feeding, most of the schools’ structures could easily be mistaken for abandoned homes left behind by the nation’s former colonial masters.
In one of the schools, Special School for Physically Challenged, Umuchu, Anambra State, there were no good structures. The only major evidence of school visible were a dusty signboard and obsolete blackboards that were hanging on dilapidated open rooms that serve as classrooms.
Investigation further revealed that both the mentally retarded students and the deaf and dumb are forced to share the same dilapidated dormitory in the school due to the absence of other structures that can serve that purpose, thereby exposing them not only to the risk of missing out from the desired education but also at the danger of not being properly protected from neglect and abuse.
Other special needs schools visited which have a semblance of good structures are battling with the challenges of lack of teaching aids, adequate teachers and other facilities required to provide education to handicapped students.
School for the Blind, Deaf and Dumb, Isulo, Anambra State, which parades a number of beautiful structures, is one of the schools battling with lack of other facilities to meet the special educational needs of the children. According to Felix Nwaochi, president general of Isulo Community, the school is seriously in need of water supply as many of the blind students have to fetch water from a stream to survive in the school.
“The school does not have water. They (students) go to the stream to fetch water. The road that lead to the stream is not good, they need assistance to make that road good because there is erosion gully (on that road), and some of those blind students fall inside when they want to fetch water,” he lamented in an emotion-laden voice.
Nwaochi, who commended the efforts of the state governor, Willie Obiano, in revamping the school, however called for assistance from well-spirited persons to support the handicapped school as government alone cannot meets its needs.“They are expanding the school and they have converted it to secondary level …but if you go to that school you will see that it is not still conducive for blind people because if that place is landscaped it would have been better because they (students) used to fall anyhow in that school. The teachers are supposed to live in the school to take care of the students, they don’t have accommodation. They don’t have sufficient funds to feed the students too. They don’t have playing field; they don’t have equipment like Braille that they are supposed to have for learning. Their Braille and typewriters are obsolete.”
Kate Omenugha, a professor and Anambra State’s Commissioner for Education, who bared her mind on the development, admitted some of the challenges but insisted that the state government is leaving no stone unturned to gradually meet the needs.
She said, “We don’t play with physically-challenged people. What we are doing is a gradual development. If you saw how Isulo was before the development you will not believe it. We are also coming to that of Umuchu, it is in phases and we have already started with the construction of one new structure. We have sunk a bore hole for them too. Our dream is to move the mentally retarded people to Isulo because that is why we have so many structures there, so the big picture is to move the mentally retarded people to Isulo. If we restructure the one in Umuchu, we will leave it for the old people because they currently mix, old and young people.”
She said the problem of water supply in Isulo could have been handled by the school management by fixing the borehole in the school as government releases a monthly subvention of between N50, 000 and N500, 000 to its administrators.
In FCT, which is supposed to serve as a model for the states based on its strategic importance as the nation’s seat of power, the special schools in the Territory are not better-off. It was found that the FCT administration can only boast of three handicapped schools to serve the thousands of physically-challenged children in the territory and yet can hardly meet the feeding needs of the children even as most of the schools’ facilities are gradually rotting away. The FCT, which has a landmass of about 8, 000 square kilometers, is two and half times the size of Lagos, but only has the special schools in two of its six area (local) councils, Kuje and Abuja Municipal (AMAC), leaving hundreds of disabled children several miles away out of school.
A visit to FCT School of the Blind, Jabi, revealed that most of the foods being consumed by the students are donations from philanthropic bodies. It has remained in perpetual darkness since January 2017 till date following disconnection from the national grid over its inability to pay electricity bill.
Another disabled school in FCT, Abuja School for the Handicapped, Kuje, built in 1999, is going through difficult times as its students are grappling with dehumanizing conditions. Our investigation showed that the dormitories, especially that of the male students’, have no good beds, toilets and good source of water supply. It was gathered that efforts by the school management to seek help from wealthy individuals and corporate organizations were not approved by FCT UBEB over its fear that such open soliciting for assistance for expose government as inept.
A teacher‚ who requested to remain anonymous‚ said some of the students sleep on bad foams placed on bare floor and that feeding has remained a major problem. This was confirmed by sordid state of the dormitory and the broken beds that littered the area.
Adamu Jatau Noma, director, FCT UBEB, however, said that the board was not unaware of the challenges affecting the schools but added that the agency was yet to get the 2015/2016 special education fund from UBEC. Noma, who spoke through Lawal Sani, board’s spokesman, said government is working hard to ensure that the needs of the schools are met.
The FCT UBEB has so far received N8.2 billion from UBEC as 50 per cent matching grant to support basic education and another N184 million for special needs education. It also received N1.03 billion as 50 per cent matching grant to support basic education for all children of school age in the Territory between 2005 and 2006; the money increased to N1.46 billion in 2007/08 and N1.15 billion in 2009 to 2010.
The matching grant increased substantially from 2011 to 2014 as a result of the increase in crude oil prices witnessed in the international market. The FCT UBEB accessed N1.72 billion and N1.98 billion from UBEC within a space of four years, but the money witnessed a downward trend in 2015 and 2016 with the board receiving a little above N876 million. However, the inability of the agency to put its special schools in good shape continues to leave many parents in search of alternative places for education of their handicapped children.
A private home for handicapped children run by a Catholic priest, Rev. Father Anthony Ananwa, which provides education free of charge is gradually serving as an alternative for some disabled children who may not be able to cope with damning shortcomings in the government-run schools. The priest, who named the home ‘Jesus Abandoned Charity Home’, said, “We have 39 (disabled persons) in our homes in Oraifite, Anambra State and Kuje, Abuja. We have school for them. But here in Abuja, we have teachers who come here to teach them. We give them food, education, accommodation and clothing but education is a major concern for us. Some of them are suffering from cerebral palsy or autism; in that case, they cannot understand many things. But some of them that can understand, we provide private teachers.”
According to Fr. Ananwa, most of the children in the home were brought in by their guardians. “Their guardians bring them to us because some of them are orphans, we have wheel chairs, we have physiotherapists’ materials, the wife of Kogi State Governor recently provided us with materials and she is also providing us medical doctor and nurses to take care of them.”
He appealed for more support as the home in Abuja lack electricity supply. He called on the Anambra State government to help in the registration of the school in Oraifite. “I want to see that my school is registered. Our secondary school finished Junior WAEC few months ago. Would you believe we could not get supervisor? We had to take our students, and some of them are physically-challenged, to other schools.”
While the handicapped children in Abuja special schools continue to wish for a better future , it is still far from ‘uhuru’ for children with disabilities in Nasarawa State, which prides itself as the most special education-friendly state in the country. The State spent about N17.6 billion on basic education within the last ten years with N8.84 billion of the money received as UBEC matching grant; while another N159 million was also disbursed to the State as special education grant. But despite the pronouncement by Governor Umaru Tanko Al-Makura to provide comprehensive free education from kindergarten to secondary school level for handicapped persons, the promise is yet to be translated to concrete actions..
Al-Makura, who also has little physical disability as he cannot do without hearing aids, created a ministry for special education and went as far as initiating three signature projects for handicapped education, one located in each of the three senatorial zones in the State. The three projects, which are being executed with the support of UBEC at the cost of N2 billion, were initially billed for completion in 2016. However, more than half way into his second tenure as governor, the comprehensive special schools located in Lafia, Gudi and Keffi are yet to be completed-a measure of how serious the government takes special education.
A recent visit to the project sites in Gudi, Akwanga Local Government Area and Keffi, Keffi Local Government Area as well as Lafia, revealed that apart from the school in Lafia, others are still far from completion. The one located in Keffi is appearing more like an abandoned project.
“The railway that passes here and this (disabled) school that they are constructing are the only government presence in this village (Gudi) but I don’t know why they don’t want to finish the work in that school,” said a community leader who simply identified himself as Musa Madaki .
An official of the firm handling the school project in Gudi, who craved anonymity for fear of incurring the wrath the company, said apart from the issue of irregular payment on the job done so far, the undulating terrain of the school was a major challenge as the contractor has spent millions of Naira to level the area. He however, assured that the project would soon be completed and handed over to the government.
In a chat with The AUTHORITY, Prof. Jonathan Ayuba, commissioner for Special Education, Science and Technology, said the delay in the project was not unconnected to the death of one of the contractors. He said the State already has three schools for the disable and that the new comprehensive schools under construction would be opened for use by January 2018. “We already have special schools but these ones (under construction) are comprehensive from nursery to senior secondary school. All the needs assessment was done and we are at the point of getting the required staff. We are also trying to establish the enabling Disability Right Commission through a bill sent to the House of Assembly,” he explained.
While there may be ray of hope for handicapped children in Nasarawa State, the reverse seems to be the case in Edo State. The State has so far received about N7 billion as UBEC matching grant for basic education and another N184 million to shore up special education but has failed to access another UBEC grant of N3.1 billion and about N30 million special education fund.
The poor access of the education grants by the state continues to take a toll on its education sector, especially its special schools. The Etsako Handicapped School, Auchi, is one of the schools that are suffering from government neglect. The school, which is supposed to serve disabled persons from the Edo North Senatorial District, has failed to receive attention from successive governments. The school, established in 1979 for deaf and dumb students, was rebuilt by Yisa Braimah, a senator who represented Edo North between 2007 and 2011 as a constituency project.
A resident of the area, Eunice Akems, decried the lack of boarding facilities in the school and said that many parents with handicapped children are usually left with no option of providing education for them as there is also the lack of good private special schools to meet such needs. “I have a relative that suppose to attend this special school in Auchi but I was discouraged because they don’t have hostels, and there is no way only her can be going there from home because of her physical challenges.”
The special school, tucked inside Akpekpe Model School in the heart of Auchi, has only one fast-dilapidating structure and has remained like a lepers’ house as residents of the area said no serious academic activities is taking place there as a result of lack of teachers and teaching aids.“Most of the so-called students normally engage in begging when the school is supposed to be in session and there are no boarding facilities in the school. How do you expect disabled children to be coming to such a school every day and learn in a busy place like that? If the government is really serious on handicapped education, they know what to do,” an official of the Etsako West Local Council, who simply identified himself as Momodu said. Others declined comment on the issue, unless with the permission of relevant authorities in Benin City, the State’s capital.
, Dr Christopher Adesotu, Edo State Commissioner for Education, did not respond to calls and text messages to his phone for comments on what the state government is doing to revamp the school.