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Zimbabwe Accused of Neglecting Disabled Students, Teachers

Pupils are taught by a senior student at a primary school in Budiriro Township, in Harare on February 11, 2009 (file photo).
Despite the U.N. Children's Fund and other international donors, the government of Zimbabwe has yet to ensure the needs of disabled students and teachers are met. The situation is still dire three years after UNICEF launched the Education Transition Fund in 2009 in response to serious shortages of learning materials and supplies in schools.

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The Mtshede Primary School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe is of the few places where this international support has made a difference. One of the students, John, for the past seven years has struggled to get into his classroom. There were no ramps for his wheelchair. That changed because of funding from UNICEF's Education Transition Fund established for Zimbabwe in 2009. However, John is one of the few disabled students to receive help.

The blind headmistress at a rural high school in Masvingo, Rosewiter Mudarikwa, says the government of Zimbabwe is still giving the majority children learning with disabilities a raw deal.

"If you are with a disability you are like any other person... There are safety nets that we have been trying to ensure ... but to tell you the truth there is never enough for children with disabilities," said Mudarikwa. "So most of the children with disabilities come from very poor families. The deaf, the blind would do well if they get the specialized equipment. Getting that is a huge challenge."

Since the formation of Zimbabwe's uneasy coalition government in 2009, international donors have chipped in to revamp Zimbabwe's education sector, which almost collapsed because of a lack of funding. Zimbabwe Education Minister David Coltart acknowledges little progress, but says his government is working hard to ensure life for children with disabilities is better at schools.

"Two years ago, we announced our inclusive policy, which is designed to transform all our schools accessible to children with disabilities," said Coltart. "That is just a policy at the moment. There is a lot of work that needs to be done. "

Coltart says that includes erecting ramps at all schools and getting reading material for blind students.

"The Braille materials have been dispatched in primary schools," Coltart noted. "The secondary school program is ongoing. I think that some of the Braille books have been sent, but there is a balance which is still has be [manufactured] and distributed to schools."

Headmistress Mudarikwa, who is with the Federation of Organizations of Disabled People of Zimbabwe, says the needs of disabled teachers and students are varied and much more needs to be done.

"Most of them cannot use a computer because there are no screen readers," Mudarikwa explained. "Most of them they cannot use their mobile phones because you will not be able to read their messages, even if it is confidential you have to ask someone to do that... That is not the kind of independence we want. We are simply saying that we are literate. The only difference is that we read in a different way. We can listen to if it is audio, or we can read it if it is in Braille. But when that is not available we feel discriminated [against] because we cannot access information the way we want."

It remains to be seen if the plight of disabled children in Zimbabwe is better funded by a government that continues to be cash-strapped.