In Ghana, education has undergone a series of reforms, but the educational experiences of people with disabilities (PWDs) are often neglected.
As the coronavirus hit Ghana, researchers have looked at its impact on working-class students and students in rural areas, but not specifically on students with special needs — especially when it comes to online learning.
Hearing-impaired and visually-impaired students faced several technical, economic, and social challenges when COVID-19 hit and they shifted their learning online.
Currently, hearing-impaired and visually-impaired students at many higher education institutions use Zoom, Telegram and WhatsApp for learning — digital platforms that were neither built for virtual learning nor for people with visual and hearing disabilities.
Many hearing-impaired students were separated from their sign language interpreters and lacked assistive devices like hearing aids. This especially impacted hearing-impaired students with limited knowledge of sign language. Visually-impaired students were separated from their sighted friends who usually assist them.
In a WhatsApp conversation with Global Voices, Esinam Aleawobu, a hearing-impaired student at the Presbyterian College of Education in Akropong, shared her experiences with e-learning:
Sometimes some tutors will use audio instead of caption. But I am deaf, I can’t hear on audio. That means an interpreter is supposed to translate it for deaf people. I have to meet the interpreter through the Zoom app. But unfortunately, we can’t meet often due to network connection problems and some phone problems.
When tutors realized that audiovisual lectures in video formats burdened students with internet data costs, they explored lesson delivery methods like audio PowerPoint lectures which still used audio and visual elements but reduced the internet data costs. In Ghana, on average, 1 gigabyte of internet data costs 10 Ghana cedis ($1.72).
According to Julius Yaw Klu, a visually impaired student at the Presbyterian College of Education in Akropong, his 4-year-old phone is outdated and does not fully support easy access to online lectures:
The problem that I faced with audiovisual is the same problem I have with the PowerPoint. Sometimes it takes about 30 minutes for me to be able to access the lecture. Sometimes I have to wait for the class to end so that I can borrow a computer and use it to access the lecture.
Daniel Kwarko, a visually-impaired student at the Presbyterian College of Education in Akropong, shared a similar concern with using his phone to participate in e-learning:
Most of the documents we get, the phone can open it, but it cannot read it. And it is difficult for those of us who are visually-impaired. And sometimes you cannot find someone to read it for you. You cannot find someone to always be there to read your notes for you. The phones cannot read the PowerPoint and the slides but the laptop does all those functions. You can even use the laptop to convert documents so that they can be accessible for JAWS [a screen reader program].
These hearing-impaired and visually-impaired students say that providing up-to-date laptop technology could tremendously facilitate online learning.
Toward inclusivity in education
Ghana’s 2015 inclusive education policy “guarantees a learning environment which is barrier-free and enables all learners, including those with disabilities, to move about safely and freely, use facilities and participate in learning and all aspects of school life.”
But research shows that one in five children ages 6-24 with a disability “has never attended school and those who are in school are often stigmatized and face discrimination.”
Despite efforts to make education more inclusive, visually-impaired and hearing-impaired students face a digital divide when it comes to e-learning. This divide not only marginalizes students with disabilities but also exacerbates inequalities in Ghana’s teacher education system.
Mohammed Salifu, a professor and executive secretary of the National Council for Tertiary Education (NCTE), told Global Voices in a phone interview that stakeholders are implementing measures to address the e-learning needs of students with special needs:
We need to make sure that all the interventions we are making are actually tailored to their needs. So the college principals have been proactive in communicating to us. We are partnering with various organizations to address these interventions. These days there are global partners coming in to make submissions regarding how they can help. Even UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization] is trying to provide these funds to support special needs students. I wouldn’t say that we have comprehensively addressed all the issues, but we are working toward them.
Transforming Teacher Education and Learning (T-TEL) is also working in Ghana to ensure e-learning inclusivity for hearing- or visually-impaired students. For example, they allocate funds for Braille curricula material, provide smartphones for digital access, and make text-to-speech converters available.
Expanding education access
The 2006 Persons with Disability Act stipulates that public buildings must be made accessible, but a study found that most public buildings in Ghana are not disability-friendly.
Mainstream educational spaces are not conducive for PWDs, and the few existing special needs schools in Ghana are grossly underfunded and under-resourced.
At the Akropong School for the Blind, three students share one set of Braille learning materials because of limited funding, according to a Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) report. The head of the primary department, Simon Adedeme, described this situation as a hindrance to teaching and learning.
In many higher education institutions, faculty, administrators and students tend to have very limited knowledge and lack the resources to deal with the structural marginalization of students with disabilities.
Many PWDs are encouraged to pursue vocational training and other types of physical labor work while generally being discouraged from intellectual pursuits in various areas of higher education.
Only three of Ghana’s 46 colleges of education have been designated as centers for inclusive education where PWDs can gain a bachelor’s degree in education and train to become basic school teachers.
Enrollment of visually-impaired and hearing-impaired students across these three institutions remains low despite recent efforts to improve facilities and attract more people with disabilities into the teaching profession.
It is imperative to work closely with students with special needs to ensure that genuine inclusion and access are actualized and sustained. This requires working actively to implement all relevant policies so that PWDs are not left at the margins of education in Ghana — during the pandemic or after.
Wunpini Fatimata Mohammed is the incoming Assistant Professor of Global Media Industries at the University of Georgia. She is a media studies scholar whose research focuses on development communication, feminisms and media industries. Find her on Twitter @wunpini_fm.