When he entered through the gates of Maktau Special School at the age of three hoisted on the back of his mother one sunny morning, he could neither speak nor stand without support. His speech was a series of incoherent babbles and his limbs were atrophied from long periods of inactivity. He needed constant attention because he could do nothing for himself.
Six years later, the transformation has been phenomenal. The boy who could not walk not only stand by himself but can make remarkably coordinated dance moves albeit slowly. His speech, though not too elaborate, has developed significantly to allow him to ask for water when he is thirsty.
“He is one of the pioneers of the Maktau Primary School special unit. To date, he remains an inspiration and proof that with proper care, attention, and support, even those of us born with congenital defects can get a chance in life to become what they want to become,” says Mr. Mwandigha Flavian, a special needs teacher at Maktau Special School.
The boy, a minor with special needs, is amongst hundreds of special needs learners in Taita-Taveta County whose abilities to speak, walk and navigate the daily challenges continue to be strengthened in special schools as part of the government’s strategic intervention of promoting welfare for special needs learners in the county.
As a county, Taita-Taveta has emerged as one the biggest beneficiaries of government special learners’ support through the National Fund for Disabled of Kenya (NFDK) with the fund spending Sh10.5 million in setting up classrooms, dormitories, and dining halls for special learners in the 2022-2023 financial year.
Mr. Peter Nyakiamo, the Vice Chair of NFDK, notes that the government remains fully committed to supporting all efforts to make learners with special needs get the best of education through funding necessary infrastructural programs and procuring learning items for special schools.
Speaking at Maktau in Mwatate sub-county this week during the commissioning of a dormitory for Maktau Special School, Mr. Nyakiamo said NFDK spends hundreds of millions each year on projects to support learning and advancement of welfare for learners with various challenges.
“We remain committed to supporting learning and other programs to help learners with special needs. We are encouraging parents to take their children to these schools and give them a chance to live,” says the Vice Chair.
Amongst key projects commissioned by NFDK include two classrooms constructed at a cost of Sh 2.6 million at Voi Special school, a Sh 2.6 twin dormitory for Maktau Special Unit, and a dining hall worth Sh2.6 million at Mwanyambo School for the deaf. The fund has also funded the construction of a 36-bed twin dormitory block for the Taveta special unit for the deaf at a cost of Sh.2.4 million.
Mr. Nyakiamo stated that NFDK would continue supporting special learners and encouraged parents with special needs children to take them to schools where they can gain skills.
Emphasizing the need for children with special needs to access education, Major Retired Marsden Madoka, an NFDK trustee urged parents to stop hiding their disabled children at home as it will only worsen their condition and spoil their chance for a better future life.
Similar sentiments were shared by NFDK’s trustee Dr. Mike Kiswili, the fund’s financial manager and Ag. CEO Antony Muli, and the education stakeholders in the county.
Ms. Fatuma Kadzo, Disability Services Officer in Taita-Taveta County says such support will go a long way in empowering learners with special needs. She noted that some parents were still wary of taking their special children to school for fear they will find it difficult to mingle with other learners without any disability.
She adds that the special units were meant to accommodate learners with different challenges including intellectual challenges, cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, and autism amongst other congenital handicaps.
“We are grateful to the government and particularly NFDK for these facilities. They can accommodate learners and ensure they are given proper support to encourage them to realize their potential,” she said.
Unlike ordinary learners, learning for special learners entails undergoing four key stages namely the foundational, the intermediate, the prevocational, and the vocational stages. The vocational stage is where a special learner has gone through the learning and is now poised to be equipped with skills to enable them enter the job market where they can earn a living.
Data at the county office from the National Council for Persons with Disabilities (NCPWD) shows the region is making significant progress in promoting the welfare of special learners. In Voi, Mwanyambo School for the Deaf has 80 learners while the Voi Special Unit has 79 learners. The Voi Unit handles learners with intellectual disabilities, mental disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism. Only 28 of these learners are boarders.
Mwatate sub-county has Mwatate special unit with 32 learners while Khungu Special Unit for the mentally handicapped has 20 learners. Taveta sub-county has two special schools and one unit with Timbila Special school for the mentally challenged having the highest enrolment of 116 learners. Taveta Special School has 29 learners while the Mahoo special unit for the physically disabled has eight learners.
One of the most significant results of the government’s intervention is to eliminate the stigma associated with being handicapped. Any form of disability in the region was traditionally regarded as a curse or as a result of witchcraft. This forced families with special needs children to hide them away from the public.
However, with the increase in the government’s investments through the partners such as NFDK targeting the special needs education sector, more parents are bringing out their children and this has allowed the learners to get adequate life skills and other important lessons.
The positive increase in the enrolment in the county shows parents are gradually shedding the retrogressive outlook of disabled children as cursed.
However, the sector needs more support in terms of facilities, especially dormitories to accommodate the learners and keep them in a safe environment.
NDFK through vice chair Nyakiamo pledged to offer more support to the region but asked parents and other stakeholders to be at the forefront of supporting the sector to make it more robust.
“We will keep supporting these children as best as we can. We also give small individual grants to those with vocational skills to help them start income-generating activities,” he said.
Ms. Kadzo said special learners needed dormitories to ensure they were kept safe and were not exposed to situations that could have them be bullied or sexually abused by strangers.
She noted that even for the facilities with dormitories, only a small number of parents were utilizing them owing to the high levels of poverty.
By Arnold Linga Masila