Fatma Haji, 40, grew up in the village of Msuka in northern Pemba Island where children with disabilities were denied their fundamental rights.

As a child Fatma contracted polio, leaving her paralysed from the waist down. Her neighbours advised her mother to do what they felt was the “right thing”, to leave the child alone in a hut and not send her to school.

However, thanks to her mother who refused to give in to the community’s demand, Fatma lived and went on to attend school and pursue her studies all the way to the diploma level.

But, all through the years of her education, she struggled just to get to her classrooms.

 “Not a single educational institute be it school, college or university had a disabled-friendly building. I cried while climbing the stairs every day,” she recalls.

She has since founded a good-samaritan who gives vocational training including computer operating, tailoring and handicrafts to young girls and women including people with disabilities.

Bakar Makame is a passionate advocate of inclusiveness. As the Chairman of the Association for People with Disabilities in Micheweni district, and someone who lives with total visual impairment, he strongly wants all the disabled people in his country to be able to access education as their right.

Understanding the special needs and rights of people with disabilities is one of the issues to be discussed openly, but Bakari feels the level of understanding hasn’t matched his expectations.

“I have been hearing several speakers say phrases and terms like “we are doing this for them (disabled) and ‘normal people”. I want to remind them, this is not about giving a handout, but providing (for those with disabilities) what is their right. And who are these normal people? Am I abnormal?” asks Bakari.

In Zanzibar a country of 1.5 million people, and 9.3% of them live with various degrees of disabilities including students.

“Our main issues are accessibility, equipment and social acceptance. We lack transportation and roads and learning materials. We definitely need resources to fill these gaps. But, there is an equal need for providing these facilities as a right. For example, we should get jobs because we have our rights to employment, not because we need compassion,” Bakar tells Zanzibar Mail.

According to the World Bank estimates, globally one billion people experience some form of disability. Of those, it is estimated that 93 to 150 million are children. According to Plan International these children are 10 times less likely to go to school than other children.

And when they do attend, it is likely to be in a segregated setting. Historically, children with disabilities have been excluded from the general education system and placed in special schools.

In some cases, they are separated from their families and placed in long-term residential institutions where they are educated in isolation from the community, if they are educated at all.

But, according to UNESCO, one of the biggest reasons why children with disabilities don’t access education, even if education policies are inclusive, is because of the lack of disabled-friendly school buildings and suitable learning materials.

Children with disabilities are also at increased risk of school violence and bullying, preventing the safe enjoyment of their right to education, says the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), School violence and bullying: Global status report, 2016.

However, despite those challenges, several organisations are working to improve education for people with disabilities in Zanzibar. One such organisation is Jumuiya Kwa Ajili ya Watu Wenye Ulemavu wa Akili (ZAPDD), a non-governmental organisation that has stepped in to help children with disabilities attend school.

With 50 local branches and more than 1,000 members, ZAPDD focuses on increased enrolment and proper teaching techniques for children and youth with disabilities in the Isles.

From 2003 to 2019, the ZAPDD partnered with a Norwegian Organisation-NFU to finance the association so as to help people with disabilities in accessing the right to education.

“School infrastructure is pivotal to our mission to create quality educational opportunities in Zanzibar. In order for quality learning to take place, students and teachers must have facilities that are safe and adapted to their needs,” Omar Iddi, tells Zanzibar Mail.

In Pemba North region, there remain significantly high levels of violence against women and girls, who are often raped and kidnapped. Those who are disabled cannot run away, making them more vulnerable.

The solution, Iddi says, lies in education for the disabled and joint financing by the government and private sector funders.

“If the government and NGOs invest more in people with disabilities, we can build more schools friendly with our status, vocational skill training, and special learning materials for the blind and other technologies like the computer. Such a facility can provide total, inclusive education to a large community. But where is that money? We need external investment,” he said.

 Sheikh Zubeir Mussa a resident of Msuka, says that though there is space for private investors in inclusive education, it needs to happen in a more collective and cohesive way. It should not be fragmented but confederated.

“Regardless of whether it’s private sectors, philanthropists, or academic bodies, we need to act through coordination. The main issue or tragedy is that we don’t have regional initiatives,” he said.

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