Making ECD work for deaf children in Zimbabwe

Lovemore Chidemo Correspondent
Deaf education in Zimbabwe and the world over has often been problematic due to a number of factors. This is, especially so, at Early Childhood Development (ECD) level.

The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) estimates that about 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, who in many cases do not know sign language.

As a result, deaf children grow up without language until the time they go to school because they cannot learn at home.

Deaf children are, therefore, disadvantaged in the education system right from the beginning.

In fact, my experience as a deaf person shows that most deaf children do not make it to school as they are often hidden at home and those that are taken to school often find it difficult to fit into a system that is not geared for their needs.

ECD is critical for deaf children as it gives them an opportunity to enter the formal education system.

There are very few schools for the deaf in Zimbabwe with ECD classes and situated in the major urban areas.

The majority are inaccessible to many deaf children, meaning taking the children away from their families and communities at a very young age.

There are very few community ECD schools that are able to cater for deaf children because they lack understanding of sign language and the deaf culture.

An inclusive education approach whereby local schools are able to cater for deaf children could go a long way towards addressing this gap, but only when the system is capacitated to meet the teaching and learning needs of deaf children.

While the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education encourages the use of a bilingual approach to teaching children during the first three years of primary education, sign language does not appear to be given the same status of dominant home language, the same as other languages.

Furthermore, Zimbabwean sign language has been declared one of the 16 official languages of the country and therefore the Government is required to promote its use, but there has not been a robust attempt to operationalise this.

I propose that a Sign Language Act be enacted to provide guidelines on how sign language would be used, its promotion and Government responsibility for its development and use in public spaces, in schools at all levels; including ECD.

While the Government professes to be using an inclusive education approach in the education of children with disabilities, the country does not as yet have an inclusive education policy.

This makes it difficult to include children with disabilities in their community particularly because public and private schools do not have a guide on the implementation of inclusive education.

Unless there is an inclusive education policy in place the full inclusion of deaf children at ECD level will continue to be a mirage, more so when viewed against the failure to understand that inclusion is more than just presence of deaf children in the classrooms.

The Government should therefore prioritise the development of an inclusive education policy framework, which should be supported by the requisite human resource base.

Training should therefore be prioritised so that there are sufficient numbers of teachers who are able to teach both deaf children and others at ECD level. Currently many teachers, including some at schools for the deaf, are not proficient in Sign Language.

The training system needs to be revamped to include deaf culture and sign language as part of every practitioner’s pre-service training.

Furthermore, appropriate materials for teaching deaf children at ECD level should be developed; this includes teacher’s guides, adaptation of popular books and rhymes for children into sign language.

While the Government has adopted the resource unit model for placement of children with disabilities in some schools, without a policy in place this is difficult to implement.

The resource units place all children with disabilities into one class irrespective of age and, in most cases, under the supervision of one or two teachers.

The teachers are often overwhelmed and the quality of education is compromised.

An inclusive education policy would clarify how deaf children can be effectively included into the mainstream classes. It would also emphasise effective inclusion over placement.

The Government should therefore prioritise the development of an inclusive education policy to ensure the inclusion of deaf children at ECD level given the highlighted critical importance to deaf learners.

 Lovemore Chidemo is a disability rights scholar.

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