Of all the world's children deprived of education, two-fifths are disabled
It is dark and still in the smooth-walled room in Mifumi village. Hamza Kamuna, tall and well built and wearing a T-shirt peppered with little holes, sits with his legs apart on a small wooden chair, his arms resting on his flared jeans.
"The school was good," the 16-year-old says of his education. "It was the only one I could go to and use braille. I went to other schools for some time, but I could not see what they were writing on the blackboard.
"At that school there was no discrimination, because even the headmistress encouraged the others to treat us well. I learned a lot."
Two years ago, Hamza, who is was born with severe low vision, was forced to leave Bishop Willis primary school 28km from his home in Iganga, eastern . At that distance, boarding was the only option, and with fees set at 250,000 Ugandan shillings (around £60) per term, the cost was simply too high. His father is also blind, and there are five other children. They are dependent on an uncle.
Without school, Hamza's world has shrunk. "I do nothing apart from sitting here," he says. "I wake up in the morning and sit. I only think about one thing – that I will wake up and be back in school."
This year the Global Campaign for Education, the umbrella body of charities and teaching unions dedicated to pursuing education for all, brings its focus to disability. Of the 57 million children worldwide estimated to still be missing out on school, more than 40% are thought to be disabled. A 2009 Department for International Development study found that the majority of Ugandan children with disabilities didn't attend primary school. Of those who did, most didn't complete all seven grades because most schools weren't set up for inclusive learning. Uganda's 2002 Population and Housing Census found that around 90% of disabled children didn't get further than primary education.
Of the total education budget – itself only 14% of the government's annual spending – one-tenth is supposed to be for special needs education, but even that sum, campaigners say, doesn't materialise in full. In the field of visual impairment, there is a dismal lack of equipment such as braille machines, and of teachers trained to deal with pupils' needs. Special needs teachers are badly paid and looked down on, says Sightsavers' Uganda programme officer, Juliet Sentongo. Too often no effort is made to help children who cannot see what is being written on a board, and with class sizes sometimes topping 100, it's hard for teachers to identify children needing extra attention. The charity has been working with the government on a special needs education policy that will address issues including teachers' pay and training, but there is no timeline for when it will be passed.
Eva Nalubanga, who has low vision, recalls the time when straining to see the smaller letters on the blackboard began to cause her pain: "I told the teachers I had a problem but they did nothing." She adds: "When I was at school I had happiness all over me," a bright smile on her face. Eventually she left. "If I had a teacher who could help me I would like to go back," she says. But schools like Bishop Willis, where more than 80 children with visual impairment learn alongside their peers, helped by Sightsavers, are rare.
Fear and prejudice also play a crippling role in visually impaired children's chances. "Some parents think their children they can't learn, even if they go to school – that it's a waste of time and money because they can't achieve anything," says David Kaule, a co-ordinator of itinerant special needs teachers, who are trained by Sightsavers and funded by the district authorities, each one working in about 10 schools. Primary and secondary education are free in Uganda, but items like uniform, pencils and paper must still be paid for.
Midiragi Kasambage, 16, missed out on school between the ages of nine and 11 for financial reasons, though his sighted siblings continued with their education. He has returned and hopes to go to university, but his father still thinks his education is a waste of money, he says: "It's only my mother who supports me."
with visual impairment are sometimes hidden at home, not allowed out even to greet visitors. Some people believe blindness is catching ("They will say, 'you want to infect me with your eyes'," says Hamza); others that it's a result of witchcraft, curable only by a witchdoctor. "There was a girl recently where there was too much use of traditional medicine to the eyes," Kaule says. "By the time we intervened it was too late. In the end she lost her sight." The 15-year-old had been made to sit, covered with a blanket, in the smoke from witchdoctor's burning "medicine", he says, for four-minute periods, three times a day for six months.
Community members suspect bewitching in the case of 16-year-old Martha Nalwadda, whose sight deteriorated over time. "Other people laughed and said why did we waste our money taking such a child to school," says her mother, Stella, who does not believe in witchcraft.
"There were no facilities at all and the other pupils didn't want to play with me because of my problem," Martha says. "If I was sitting on a stool they would push it over. They used to me call names. It hurt me a lot."
Sightsavers' inclusive education programme aims to increase enrolment of blind and low-vision children in Uganda by 25% by 2016. The charity provides equipment like braille machines and paper, as well as training for teachers in mainstream schools so children can be taught alongside their peers. Itinerant teachers (ITs) monitor pupils' progress within schools, working in each with a "contact teacher" who receives basic training in special needs. Out in the community, ITs identify new cases and bring successful blind people to village meetings, where they seek to convince parents that their children deserve education, too.
But while inclusive schools remain thin on the ground, children from poor families will continue to miss out. Martha is delighted to receive a kit that will help her to learn braille, but it is only funding from a private donor that will allow her to use her new skills at a school with a special unit for visually impaired people, where she must be a boarder.
Like Hamza and Martha, Nabirye Haliyati, 15, lives a sedentary existence. One of her legs is paralysed, and she sits on a woven mat in the brick porch of her family home in Idudi village, tucked away from the main thoroughfare. Her education ended at the age of 10 when her sight began to fail.
"The school was the only one I could afford to go to and it wasn't a school for the disabled," she says, in a gentle voice. "My parents had no money to take me to other schools, because they were using all the money to take me to the hospitals."
On the other side of the house, a small army of secondary school girls marches past, white socks pulled up to their knees, cornflower blue skirts swinging with each self-assured step. "I can't see anything," Nabirye says. "I have nothing to do, but I'm just waiting for god – if he can help me. I need eyes, and education."
The injustice is what stays with you
It is the sheer injustice of the situations of visually impaired teenagers robbed of their chance to get an education – and how much being able to go to school would mean to them – that stays with Rebecca Unwin (above left) and Maisie Le Masurier (right), this year's young ambassadors for the Send ALL My Friends to School campaign.
Rebecca, 15, and Maisie, 14, winners of the Steve Sinnott award, travelled to Uganda to learn about the barriers to education faced by children with disabilities. Now the pair, from Guildford county school in Surrey, will encourage other young people in the UK to lobby politicians on the issue.
Maisie was struck by the gulf between Hamza and another teenager she met, who was able to attend an inclusive school, and was determined to become a lawyer. "They both had a visual impairment and the same work ethic and motivation," she says. "It was eye-opening to see such similar potential, yet such contrasting futures ahead."
For Rebecca, who is partially sighted herself after a brain tumour four years ago, the experience was particularly personal. "Interestingly, none of the young people said what they aimed for was to get their eyesight back," she says. "They all said they wanted education."
• Rachel Williams's trip was funded by the Global Campaign for Education UK and the National Union of Teachers. A free resources pack is available for schools:
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