Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 Remote Education Measures Failing Children with Disabilities: Potential Solutions

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Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 Remote Education Measures Failing Children with Disabilities: Potential Solutions

COVID-19 increased challenges to providing inclusive education for children with disabilities in Zimbabwe. Although alternative programmes have been introduced, these rely heavily on remote learning which excludes many children with disabilities, due to lack of resources, technology, support and training.

COVID-19 has presented severe challenges worldwide, including Zimbabwe where in March 2020 the country was forced to enact rigorous measures to contain and prevent the virus. According to UNICEF , 9,500 schools were closed, affecting more than 4.6 million children. Whilst some schools were able to offer various forms of remote learning, more than 90 per cent of children, including those with disabilities, had limited access to these. An Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union report indicates that lack of supporting infrastructure and insufficient teacher training compromised delivery of remote learning programmes. Despite phased reopening in September and November 2020, some schools were forced to close again when pupils tested positive for COVID-19 . As the number of cases increased in January 2021, the government announced a further two-week extension of the lockdown on 15 February, highlighting that schools should remain closed.

The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education instigated various measures to ensure children’s continued right to education, including alternative learning programmes using radio, digital and online facilities and distribution of supplementary reading materials. However, a number of factors rendered these programmes inaccessible to children with disabilities, thereby violating their right to inclusive education.

Those with disabilities are disproportionately affected by emergencies and suffer more due to insufficient attention to accessibility of alleviating measures, thus responses to pandemics like COVID-19 must ensure that all children have equal access to their rights without discrimination on any grounds.

Legal framework on inclusive education in Zimbabwe
In Zimbabwe, the rights of children with disabilities are well protected by national and international law. Nationally, several clauses in the constitution oblige the state to protect their right to education, provide special facilities for their education and not discriminate against them. The Education Amendment Act also states that schools should provide infrastructure suitable for use by pupils with disabilities. Internationally, Zimbabwe has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (article 13), Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 28 and 29), Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (article 24), African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (article 17(1), and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (article 11), all of which provide the right to education without discrimination on grounds of disability.

While it is appreciated that the schools closure was meant to protect children against COVID-19, restrictions on freedom of movement during emergencies must not impair the essence of a right . Recent statements from international human rights organisations confirm this principle. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stressed that although some of the measures adopted by states to prevent COVID-19 impose severe restrictions on human rights, such measures must be reasonable and proportionate to ensure the protection of human rights. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights declared that states should therefore take measures to mitigate negative effects of restrictions . The African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child also urged states to ensure the right to education for every child during the pandemic, which includes responding to the needs of children with disabilities. Moreover, education can play a critical role during emergencies by strengthening children’s resilience. Thus, Zimbabwe has an obligation to ensure that children with disabilities have access to inclusive education even during the pandemic.

How remote learning measures can exclude children with disabilities
The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education introduced alternative learning programmes as part of achieving safe, secure and continuous learning for children. These focused on three critical interventions: radio learning, digital and online delivery, and provision of supplementary reading materials. Whilst the government can be commended for taking these steps, their inclusiveness for children with disabilities is questionable.

Prior to COVID-19, children with disabilities were already facing serious difficulties regarding access to education in Zimbabwe. These included limited numbers of special schools, insufficient funds for enrolment in special schools, a shortage of assistive devices, long distances to schools, lack of expertise among teachers and negative attitudes about education of children with disabilities. The pandemic has disadvantaged these children further, as the closure of special schools left their pupils without specialised learning material usually only available at such schools. Moreover, remote learning is inaccessible for many, not least those with disabilities. The alternative learning programmes specifically excluded children with disabilities in the following ways:

  • Radio lessons are not beneficial for children with hearing impairments and/or mental impairments. There are no supplementary lessons on television in sign language or with subtitles to cater for children with hearing impairments.
  • Some children with disabilities come from poor backgrounds and remote areas. They do not even have electricity or internet access, let alone remote learning tools such as radios, computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones and assistive devices.
  • Most gadgets used for online learning do not have the requisite accessibility features for easy usage by children with disabilities. Such devices require technology not readily available in Zimbabwe, which is lagging behind in this sector.
  • Most of the supplementary reading material exclude children with visual impairments as they are unavailable in braille.
  • There is no evidence of support for teachers and caregivers assisting children with disabilities during the pandemic. The situation is worse for children with complex learning needs as they require specialist teachers to provide further support, for which parents lack the relevant expertise.

Thus, government measures have violated the right to inclusive education for children with disabilities during the pandemic.

Recommendations for improved inclusivity
COVID-19 has exacerbated the challenges faced by children with disabilities regarding inclusive education in Zimbabwe. Some non-state actors such as UNICEF have provided some learners with assistive devices and supplementary reading material in braille. However, most children with disabilities remain unable to enjoy their right to education during the pandemic. Yet, COVID-19 might be an opportunity to rethink and relearn how emergency education preparedness can include children with disabilities. Here are some recommendations:

  • More resources should be allocated and targeted towards inclusive education for children with disabilities. This includes provision of more schools for children with special needs, assistive devices and study material in braille. Private actors can also support as they have a role to play in humanitarian crises.
  • Continuous collection and disaggregation of data by disability for emergency responses would safeguard support to all children with disabilities during pandemics.
  • Support should be provided to education systems to guarantee accessibility of remote learning for children with disabilities.
  • Teachers should be trained to teach children with disabilities remotely while parents and caregivers should be supported to help children with disabilities learn remotely.
Opal Masocha Sibanda

Written by Opal Masocha Sibanda

Opal Masocha Sibanda is currently a Legal Assistant (Intern) at the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child in Lesotho. She holds an LLM in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa from the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria.

Cite as: Sibanda, Opal Masocha. "Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 Remote Education Measures Failing Children with Disabilities: Potential Solutions", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 18 March 2021, https://gchumanrights.org/preparedness/article-on/zimbabwes-covid-19-remote-education-measures-failing-children-with-disabilities-potential-solutions.html


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