CLARE WAVAMUNNO

Uganda,

Clare Wavamunno is reconnecting children with learning disabilities to the mainstream education system, restoring their social networks and peer relationships.

This profile below was prepared when Clare Wavamunno was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.

INTRODUCTION

Clare Wavamunno is reconnecting children with learning disabilities to the mainstream education system, restoring their social networks and peer relationships.




THE NEW IDEA

Clare believes that children with learning disabilities need to be integrated into the education system with their peers—not quarantined in special schools. Her model school, Hill Preparatory School, places children with special learning needs with children with normal learning abilities in the same environment—allowing interaction, while providing special attention to the former. Hill Preparatory is the first school of its kind in the country; with her original materials for teachers and accompanying Tool kit for parents, developed to guide the children’s learning and growth process.

A number of schools, both elementary and secondary, have sprung up based on the Hill Preparatory model. This reflects the heightened awareness of the need for integration of this marginalized group in the government and private sector. Clare’s learning model answers the essential “how-to” questions posed by national level institutions focused on special education and set up after Hill Preparatory School. Building from this growing base of support, Clare is transforming both the structure and system of primary level education across the country.




THE PROBLEM

Ten percent of Ugandan children below the age of sixteen have some form of learning disability. One such condition, aphasia, involves a loss or impairment of the ability to produce and/or comprehend language. A person with aphasia may be able to speak but not write, or vice versa, or display any of a wide variety of deficiencies in speech, reading, writing, and comprehension. This is a pervasive problem among Ugandan children—over 230,000 children under 16 years of age—which leads to a myriad of challenges for them and their families. Though naturally occurring, many African cultures consider any form of anomaly in the physical or mental growth of a child a taboo—often leading to victimization of the woman: Denial of the mother and child’s right to the family estate and even separation of the family. The child is stigmatized by his or her peers and is essentially cut off from all social networks—within and outside the family.

For those few families that have transcended false traditional beliefs, a new challenge emerges: The cost of treating aphasia. There are few, if any, African doctors specializing in aphasia treatment. Should a parent consider the option of treating their child, he or she is forced to pursue treatment from foreign specialists. Treatment, which is a long and tedious ordeal requiring numerous visits to foreign doctors, is outside the financial reach of most Ugandans. Fundraising announcements from parents desperate to save their children’s lives or to seek medical treatment in foreign medical institutions, mainly through donated space in newspapers, have become common practice in Uganda. This, unfortunately, is a manifestation of the limited ability of Ugandan institutions to handle sophisticated medical procedures, and Ugandans’ financial inability to pursue such treatments in foreign institutions. Despite their efforts, very few of the suffering parents manage to raise enough money to provide their children with adequate treatment.

For a long time the government acknowledged the need to address the special learning needs of children, like those with aphasia. At the national level, it administered the Uganda National Institute for Special Education to set and implement policy on special needs education. At the grassroots level, the government’s preferred option was to set up a number of ‘special’ schools for children with disabilities, primarily schools for the deaf, blind, and mute. However, prior to Hill Preparatory School, there were no schools for slow learning children—including children with aphasia. Special schools for disabled children have emphasized the difference in abilities with other children—often leading to further stigmatization—instead of bridging their differences and preparing children for a rich and integrated life in society that is not impeded by their disabilities.




THE STRATEGY

Clare has designed a learning environment based on a loving relationship that ensures close interaction between children of various abilities and teachers. She created a teaching guide for teachers and a Tool kit for parents, to help integrate children with learning disabilities with their peers. Clare challenges parents with children of ‘normal’ learning abilities to share the classroom with learning disabled children, and advocates for the government to craft policies that will integrate all children in the national education campaign. Recently, the government adopted a policy of inclusive education after it set up the Universal Primary Education System. The school actively participated in drafting the national policy to assess special education. In addition, the school is championing the recognition non examinable, non-academic subjects such as cookery, tailoring, art and craft, sports, IT, music, and gardening, at Primary Leaving Education certification—subjects not given a lot of attention because they are not examined countrywide. 

Clare founded the first school in Uganda and perhaps East Africa that places all children with or without learning disabilities in the same classroom and uses the same curriculum. Hill Preparatory School emphasizes love and integration as the best way to help children with learning disabilities overcome their learning challenges. The school was built with wide open spaces with tree shade and well trimmed lawns that provide alternative settings for classes. As a young mother with a daughter with a learning disability, Clare knew that children with learning disabilities require a considerable amount of rest in their class program. Therefore the school has a resting facility for children at particular times of the school day. Very early on, Clare struggled with complicated cases where children occasionally became disruptive in class, so she added a pull-away program to address this challenge. The pull-away room and employs a highly experienced counselor. When a child shows signs of becoming disruptive, he/she is quickly taken into the pull-away room for some specialized and loving attention from the counselor. The room is set up similar to the classroom and the child spends only a limited time, then rejoins his/her classmates as soon as possible.

Clare’s learning environment is built on empathy, patience, and integration, which characterize each aspect of the program, from recruitment to assessment. Recruitment of children with learning disabilities starts with an hour-long meeting with the parent and a counselor to study the history of the child’s condition and to understand the parent’s concerns. This is followed by an assessment of the child’s academic and social abilities to determine the most suitable learning method for the child. Because each child has a specialized learning schedule, regular assessment meetings are held with parents. Clare’s program is built on a delicate balance between children with learning disabilities and children with normal learning abilities to facilitate integration. Clare maintains this balance through her recruitment policy that requires each parent to bring a child with normal learning abilities for each child with learning disabilities. To maintain the optimum level of integration ratio of both categories of children to excel, (one special child with at least three counterparts), a sponsorship program attracts academically bright children who cannot afford the education. The school now attracts student teachers who seek to have practical training while pursuing special education. In addition, the school is negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding with Makerere University Business School for areas of cooperation in internship, research, development of entrepreneurial, vocational, and tailor courses for youth and social entrepreneurship as a career path. The latter will be expanded to include Ashoka Fellows and social entrepreneurs.

Even when recruiting teachers, empathy and patience are fundamental criteria. Clare argues that one can learn to instruct children with learning disabilities but must be kind by nature and patient—more patience than usual is needed with children with disabilities. Once recruited, each teacher is taken through learning and practical modules on integration.

The school has also simplified the Uganda primary education curriculum and tailored it to each child’s learning needs. Uganda’s learning syllabus does not encourage a reading culture. Clare has modified the syllabus to engage children in more reading and more practical subjects such as cooking, tailoring, livestock rearing, gardening, art and crafts and computers. She also added mediated learning which utilizes sports and recreation as a learning tool. Her school has excelled in swimming, and even sent a team to the World Special Olympics where one of her children won a gold medal and another, silver. Programs such as these are often therapeutic for children’s brains and help them discover their skills and interests. The school is in the process of constructing sports and recreation facilities at the school to accommodate a large audience for local and international tournaments.

Clare’s negotiation skills have been instrumental in building Hill Preparatory School and its unique curriculum. When her school was losing money, she negotiated with private investors to cover the losses and to finance the school without losing her stake. She also managed to negotiate a commemorative advertisement centre piece with Uganda’s highest circulating daily and several television stations to run advertisements on Hill Preparatory School and the need for integration in infant learning schools. Her message now reaches a national audience. She has also negotiated with the Uganda National Examination Board to provide alternative examination methods in national examinations for children with learning disabilities around the country.




THE PERSON

When Clare had her first child, she discovered that she could not keep up with the rest of her peers in class. Clare learned that her daughter suffered from aphasia, a learning disability that affects about 5 percent of Ugandan children. Her child could not find children to play and learn with, not because they did not want to, but because their parents would not allow it. In fact, Clare discovered that young children do not discriminate and from this she developed the idea to integrate her child with other children with normal learning abilities as the best way to help her develop.

In 1988, based on empathy and integration, Clare financed a playgroup in her daughter’s teacher’s living room that allowed her daughter to interact with her peers. The results were remarkable. More parents brought their children with different forms of learning and physical disabilities to her home and that of the teacher—many of the parents had not found a place that would accept their children. Although not a teacher by profession, Clare learned about education, and took sign language classes to communicate with deaf and mute children to manage this new group.

This playgroup evolved into what is now Hill Preparatory School, and it has progressively placed learning disabled children in the same learning environment with children of normal learning abilities.