Updated education curriculum a threat to deaf education

Opinion: Lincoln Hlatywayo & Tawanda Matende

In this article, we strongly argue that the updated curriculum framework (2015-2022) is very silent on disability issues and more specifically deaf education. The only word in the document that brings hope to learners with disability is inclusivity. We contend that the word needs to be unpacked since it is interpreted and applied differently to suit implementers.

We recommend that an inclusive implementation strategy of the framework with disability specific exit profiles be developed.

In 2017, we had an opportunity to follow an interview where Lazarus Dokora (the then Minister of Primary and Secondary Education) was being grilled over the updated curriculum on ZTV. When asked why there was so much noise about the updated curriculum, Dokora said the major problem with the generality of Zimbabweans was that they did not want to read. This was spot on.

We can testify that we also had not read the updated curriculum in detail, but we had made negative conclusions about it. We immediately looked for the document again and started reading in detail.

One of us was fortunate to be engaged by the usually busy former minister, together with other colleagues from Deaf Zimbabwe Trust. The agenda was not on the updated curriculum, but along the meeting the minister was unpacking the major provisions of the updated curriculum with passion. We went back to read the framework again and again.

We then concluded that if we were not careful, our learners with various impairments may be excluded from receiving quality education since the document did not at all articulate disability issues.

Prior to the implementation of the updated curriculum, the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education had availed syllabi for 15 constitutionally recognised languages except one, sign language.

Literature is awash with empirical studies that confirm errors of commission and omission when it comes to service delivery for learners with impairments. Be it commission or omission, what message are we sending to society? That disability is a social construct? Sign language has not been developed in Zimbabwe except for two sign language dictionaries published by the ministry.

Sign language has never been a curriculum subject in Zimbabwe because it is assumed that it develops naturally, which is very wrong. Does inclusivity within the updated curriculum mean we will include deaf learners to learn to speak? Sign language does not develop incidentally like spoken languages.

Learners who are deaf have a natural sign language acquisition device if we are to borrow from Chomsky’s theory of language development. Can we assume that the ministry is not aware that 90% of deaf children come from hearing parents who also need to be taught sign language, possibly in schools! This area needs urgent attention and we expect the Schools Psychological Services to urgently move in and address the issue. The deaf community is very saddened by this development.

We need not to show them the “us and them” attitude lest we kill their spirit of self-discovery. In any case, why should disability issues always be implemented as a result of advocacy? Is education not also a human right for leaners with disabilities?

Section 6, sub-section 4 of the Constitution, stipulates that the State must promote and advance the use of all languages used in Zimbabwe, including sign language, and must create conditions for the development of those languages.

On September 23, 2013 Zimbabwe ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD). Article 24:4 of the convention stipulates that in order to help ensure the realisation of this right, State Parties shall take appropriate measures to employ teachers, including teachers with disabilities, who are qualified in sign languages and to train professionals and staff who work at all levels of education.

Furthermore, article 30:4 says persons with disabilities shall be entitled, on an equal basis with others, to recognition and support of their specific cultural and linguistic identity, including sign languages and deaf culture. In 2001, the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, through the Schools Psychological Services Director’s Circular No.2 of 2001, directed that sign languages be taught in all primary schools in Zimbabwe.

Despite all these provisions, sign language is neither a curriculum subject nor formally taught in Zimbabwean schools, including in schools of the deaf and yet deaf learners are expected to learn the same materials and perform the same as their hearing counterparts.

The performances of deaf learners at Grade 7 and O’ Level have been dismal, not even comparable to their hearing counterparts. The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education only availed two sign language dictionaries for use by schools. These dictionaries are only distributed to schools on demand. Teachers who wish to teach in sign language are expected to learn the signs, not the language in these dictionaries. Who then is responsible for teaching sign language aspects such as phonology, morphology and syntax? For how long should we deprive deaf learners of their language? Sign language is the first language of deaf children, which needs to be developed like any other language. Failure to develop sign language is a human rights violation. Should the status quo remain, deaf learners will continue to perform badly in public examinations; they will continue to live as second class citizens who can never realise their full potential.

The other issue that we would want to see unpacked is that of learner exit profiles. For example, It is imperative to disaggregate exit profiles of learners with hearing impairments using severity of loss, for example, hard of hearing or deaf, type of hearing loss like prelingual or postlingual, monoaural or binaural. Our argument is that on top of the generalised exit profiles that are in the updated curriculum. Let’s add those that are disability specific. For example, by the time a child who is deaf transit from preschool to junior school, what sign language competencies is he or she expected to have acquired?

The updated curriculum also has a rich list of cross-cutting issues. The only issue that must be added on the list is disability. Let learners without impairments understand disability issues from preschool to make their cognitive faculties positively disposed towards it. If we demystify disability early, society will be free of negative disability constructions. In any case, the World Health Organisation estimates that 15% of children in any school have some form of disability. Doesn’t this statistic qualify disability as a cross-cutting issue? In the next article, we will talk about disability sports and many other issues that we feel warrant the need for a sub curriculum framework.

In conclusion, we propose the following model as possibly a part of the solution to the teaching and learning of sign language. The model shall be explained in later publications.

In addition, the updated curriculum stipulates that a formative assessment will constitute 30% in the final assessment, while summative assessment contributes 70%. In the implementation framework, we are proposing that assessment be unpacked with an impairment severity continuum in mind. A practical example is given in the table below.

These academic issues need to be discussed at formal forums and we recommend that the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education convene a conference where the updated curriculum is explored by all stakeholders, including persons with impairments. As it is, the curriculum is a disability.

Lincoln Hlatywayo is an Associate rofessor of Disability Studies and Special Needs Education at Zimbabwe Open University, while Tawanda Matende is a PhD student with University of Venda and a Sign language interpreter at the Harare Magistrates’ Courts. Views expressed in this article are personal.

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