The notion of inclusive education began to emerge during the 1950s and 1960s. At first it focused on integrating students with disabilities into mainstream classrooms, but it evolved over time. Now it’s about including students with diverse backgrounds and abilities, such as those with emotional or cognitive challenges whose disabilities are often “invisible”.
Global initiatives emphasise that integration is key to creating educational opportunities for all pupils and to combating stigma and discriminatory attitudes.
The problem is that the concept of inclusive education – and ideas about what it takes to make schools inclusive – was developed in the global north. It doesn’t take into account the fact that schools in countries with lower incomes and fewer resources can’t always afford the physical infrastructure to drive inclusion.
And teachers may not think of inclusive education as a priority when they’re contending with low salaries and waning motivation, teaching materials are lacking, physical structures are deteriorating, classrooms are overcrowded, and students are finding it difficult to pay school fees. In fact, they may not think about inclusive education at all.
I am a researcher focused on diversity and equity issues. I wanted to understand what in-service teachers and trainee teachers in Zimbabwe know about inclusive education. Globally, about 50% of children with disabilities in low- and middle- income countries are not in school. While there are no precise statistics for Zimbabwe, it is a low income country and, so, it is very likely that a large number of its disabled children are not in school. Anecdotally, some of the teachers I interviewed knew of children with disabilities who had left school because of problems with accessibility.
I also wanted to explore whether the southern African philosophy of unhu, also called ubuntu, could contribute to an understanding of inclusive education and potentially inform the creation of alternative inclusive policies. Ubuntu is a concept that emphasises the importance of including everyone and building a strong community.
As case studies, I selected two rural schools and two teacher training colleges that supplied these schools with teachers. The schools were in remote areas; many families ended up there after losing their land during colonial times.
I chose this region strategically for its history of displacement, which offered insights into the community’s adaptation mechanisms. I was able to explore the enduring effects of colonial displacement on the community’s present socio-economic conditions and their approach towards inclusive education.
Read more: What South Africa needs to do to improve education for disabled children
Both in-service and trainee teachers described numerous barriers to inclusive education.
When we are taught about inclusive education, they only focus on students with visible disabilities - hearing impairments and visual impairments. As a result, we are rushed to understand some basic braille and sign language. Other complicated and invisible disabilities are never taught in that module. (Trainee teacher)
And, while there was some discussion in training about students with visible disabilities, in reality they were not accommodated in schools. A primary school teacher told me:
We have pit latrines here and only one modern toilet. We are not capable of enrolling students with severe disabilities.
One student who was so severely disabled that she moved around by “crawling on the floor” dropped out in the third grade, the teacher said.
Even teachers who knew about and valued the ideals of inclusive education struggled to implement it in the face of daily realities. A secondary school teacher explained:
Paying attention to each student is challenging. It drains me. I have a big class and the (Education) Ministry does not recognise my inclusive practice efforts but the academic achievements of students, so I move with those that are quick in grasping the subject.
Overall it was clear that there’s a big gap in knowledge and training for both working and trainee teachers when it comes to inclusive education.
There was a real sense of powerlessness among the teachers. They can’t fix infrastructure – and shouldn’t have to, since this is not their job. This is where ubuntu/unhu comes in: I believe its tenets can be harnessed to help teachers think about what they can do.
The role of ubuntu
The unhu/ubuntu philosophy has already been applied elsewhere to encourage inclusive education. Obuntu balumu is a peer-to-peer support initiative in Uganda. It has been studied and found to materially improve the participation and inclusion of children with disabilities, including less visible ones.
Read more: What Archbishop Tutu's ubuntu credo teaches the world about justice and harmony
As the Obuntu bulamu project shows, underpinning learning with an ubuntu/unhu philosophy promotes positive cultural practices for inclusivity. At the same time it requires state actors to make decisions based on respect and solidarity. It also encourages innovative, contextual solutions for resource constraints and accessibility issues, such as parent training or home visits for students with disabilities. All of this drives inclusive education.
The teachers I interviewed recognised this and offered some ideas about how ubuntu could help them to promote inclusive education. A primary school teacher said:
Ubuntu is about fostering community support, an element that aligns perfectly with our context. For instance, we could use our current understanding of inclusive education to create a concise, locally relevant handbook on the subject, and distribute it to students to share with their parents and guardians. This handbook would provide insights into disability and its implications.
This teacher also suggested at-home tutoring and training other students to support those with disabilities as ways to embed ubuntu in their practice:
Alternatively, we could make regular trips to nearby villages, providing a few hours of instruction to those unable to attend school during the week. By doing so, wouldn’t we be practising ubuntu?
Adopting the unhu/ubuntu philosophy can help create a more inclusive and supportive educational environment for all students, going beyond western ideas and reflecting a more locally relevant understanding of inclusive education.