Saturday, January 10, 2015

Making Space

Toa nafasi literally translated from the Swahili means "make space" though for the purposes of naming our organization, it stands for "provide a chance."  This subtle differential occurred to me when I came across a recent article from the Tanzania Daily News titled "When Varsity Architecture 'Forgets' People with Disability."  In it, the idea of making schools more physically accessible to people with disability is discussed.  Oftentimes, I think I get so carried away thinking about how to make education more pedagogically accessible for kids with learning difficulties that I too am susceptible to unintentionally disregarding the needs of students with physical disabilities.  Undoubtedly, they too are at a disadvantage in the Tanzanian classroom and their needs must also be taken account of.  Take a look at the article written by Issa Yusuf below!

On Saturday December 13, 2014, I was lucky to be among the journalists who were invited by the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA) for a press conference held at its main campus, Tunguu Village, about 35kms south of Stone Town.
With the traffic jam and pot-holes in the road, which forced us to drive a snail's pace in many areas, it took us about 35 minutes to reach the university still with construction work going on.  Almost all its buildings are new, as the university shifted last year from the State Town where it started operating in 2001.
The new SUZA main campus was planned for a permanent trade fair ground, but the plan failed to materialize, and the Government of National Unity (GNU) opted to make the changes to shift the university.
We started to climb upstairs to the conference room on the third floor, but as we made our way, one of our colleagues asked jokingly whether there was lift because it was difficult for him to climb up!
One of the university staff, who was behind us, answered, "We do not have a lift here."  Our colleague asked further, "These steps are difficult to climb.  What happens to visitors and students with disabilities?  Is there any building on the campus which is friendly to the disabled?"
There was no answer at this time.  While negotiating the stairs, our colleague argued that for a person in a disabled state, it is so difficult to reach the lecture rooms, and also to move around the university premises generally.
Since our colleague is an activist for the right of people with disability, she decided to raise the same question about the university environment and those with disability to the Vice Chancellor of SUZA, Professor Idris Rai, during the press conference.
Professor Rai told many success stories of the university since it was established including increasing skilled labor (lecturers) and well-performing students, but when asked whether the university environment is disabled-friendly, he said, "Unfortunately our university environment is not friendly to people with disability because the current administration was not involved in the designing and construction of buildings."
The situation around the university was poor due to the architecture of the Learning Center, which is located high upstairs with no ramps or lifts to enable people with disability to arrive there.  In more than a decade of SUZA's existence, the school has just recently enrolled at least six students with disability (visual and hearing impairment), and that other students are reluctant to report their disability status.
"We have been carrying out an exercise to identify students with disability in the university so that we can improve the environment, mainly the learning facilities including providing hearing aids and Braille machines." said Professor Rai.
Buildings at SUZA and other higher learning institutions on the islands have not been constructed keeping in mind the special requirements for those with disability.  Floors are unevenly patterned floor which is difficult for the visually challenged, and there are few ramps in place for the physically challenged.
Mr. Adil Mohamed, visually-impaired himself and Secretary of the Zanzibar National Association of the Blind (ZANAB) comments that although there are laws to protect people with disability, and most Tanzanians and Zanzibaris have accepted the conventions for people with disability, still there is no visible and practical commitment in promoting the rights of these people.
He said that there is a need to sensitize people at all levels about the sheer practical requirement of having a disabled-friendly infrastructure and that people with disability require the same access to various places as others.  This means equal access for to all buildings, public spaces, and any other place a person might need to go for work, play, education, business, and services.
Activists and people with disability have been calling upon responsible bodies including the government to make sure that all people have equal opportunity in all sectors, but particularly education.  The universal right to education is reflected in International Law in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 13 and 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
This right has been reaffirmed in the 1960 UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education, the 1981 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Everyone has a right to an education appropriate to his/her talents and needs and laws in many other countries guarantee education to students with disabilities.  But in many developing countries like Zanzibar, the environment for disabled people still remains practically unfavorable.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is an international human rights treaty of the United Nations intended to protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities.  Parties to the Convention are required to promote, protect, and ensure the full enjoyment of human rights by persons with disabilities and ensure that they enjoy full equality under the law.
The Convention has served as the major catalyst in the global movement from viewing persons with disabilities as objects of charity, medical treatment, and social protection towards viewing them as full and equal members of society, imbued with all equal human rights.
It is also the only UN human rights instrument with an explicit sustainable development dimension.  The Convention was the first human rights treaty of the third millennium.
The purpose of the present Convention is to promote, protect, and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.
Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.
Backed by the Constitution, the following policies were instated, the 'Zanzibar Rights and Privileges Act No. 9 of 2006,' the 'Zanzibar National Growth and Poverty Reduction Strategy, 2010 - 2015 (MKUZA II),' the 'Zanzibar Disability Development Policy,' and the 'Zanzibar Disability Development Fund.'  Yet, still not much has been done for the people with disability, as the environment for education is still unfriendly.
Since many countries like Zanzibar have either passed specific laws concerning the rights of people with disabilities, or have enshrined those rights in their constitutions, they must now enforce the laws.  Ms. Ruwaida Khamis, a graduate in law and visually-impaired person, said it is a matter of fairness and respect: "Everybody has a right to live as normal a life as possible, and people with disabilities have the same rights as others, including the right to fully participate in community life."
Ms. Khamis said that access for people with disabilities improves access for everyone and that making public spaces and facilities physically accessible for people with disabilities also makes them more accessible for people who may not have disabilities.  Making ramps a built-in feature of the environment is good for everyone.
Mr. Abdalla Saleh, a deaf man, has advised that when new public facilities are being designed and/or built as public facilities (e.g. sports stadiums, schools, and other public facilities), they must be made accessible to different groups of people to accommodate people with different abilities.  Good design can make accessibility total and essentially invisible.
It's important that designers, builders, policy makers, government officials, private sector stakeholders, and people with disabilities themselves think about how best to gain access.  In the United States, the University of Kansas, through its 'Community Tool Box' says where there are laws written, they must be enforced in order to have any effect and that ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities means more than building ramps.
The University encourages pressure groups to work with legislators to pass laws that guarantee equality of access and opportunity to people with disabilities.
Spaces that need to be physically accessible include buildings, restaurants, retail stores, hotels, conference centers, medical and other offices, theaters, sports stadiums, educational facilities, historic sites, courtrooms, police stations, and tourist attractions.
Access here includes not only access to the buildings, but also to the specific rooms or halls where events take place or where the public must go to conduct business or receive services.

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