To combat this, a Sightsavers project in the country is paving the way for a more equitable approach, testing an inclusive education system at four schools. Local teachers are being trained to support students with disabilities and make their classrooms accessible for all.
As part of the project, the local Malian language has been translated into braille for the first time. This has enabled schools to produce braille versions of assessments to judge the reading levels of school children, meaning students with visual impairments can be assessed on an equal footing with their classmates.
So far, the inclusive education initiative has helped 252 primary school children who are blind or have visual impairments.
Here, students, teachers and parents describe how the project has made a difference to their lives.
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Mariam is nine years old and has low vision. Her mother, Kadiatou, had watched her daughter struggle to learn for years. “We discovered Mariam’s disability during the second year at primary school, ” says Kadiatou. “She was often complaining about her eyes and her writing was unreadable. I saw that her disability was very serious. I was worried as this disability could lead to more serious problems in the future. ”
When Mariam started at one of the inclusive schools, Kadiatou saw the impact straight away. “There were some great changes with the help of the project by giving Mariam corrective glasses. She sees things with more accuracy: before, her writing was unreadable but now it’s readable. Mariam is very clever. I wish for her a better future with happiness and joy. ”
Mariam is now one of the top five pupils in her class. “My favourite subjects are dictation and mathematics,” she says. “I like to learn my lessons. I want to be a journalist. And I like to play with my friends – we play hide and seek. ”
Alfousseni is blind and began attending Darsalam B School in Segou through the project. “I’m 15 years. I am in the fifth grade [Year 6 in the UK],” he says. “My favourite subject is writing.” Before he joined the school, he spent the days at home with his family. “Sometimes we went for a walk. Sometimes at home we tried to sew sandals to earn money.”
Now, Alfousseni has the opportunity to learn and thrive in school with his peers. The new environment and time spent with other children has helped him get along better with the people around him. “Before I went to this school, I didn’t understand everyone. But I started to understand people and now I can understand what people say and I don’t fight any more. Before, all I knew was to fight people because I couldn’t understand them.”
Noutene, who has low vision and albinism, is 11 years old. She also started at Dar Salam B School through the project. “I have several little sisters and brothers,” she says. “At school I like mathematics and grammar. I have a best friend. Her name is Awa. She’s in this school, and we’re in the same class.”
One of the services offered at the new schools is eye tests for the pupils, and Noutene was one of 90 students who received a pair of glasses to improve their vision. “To begin with it was a little bit difficult to learn. At that time, I didn’t wear corrective glasses. They gave me corrective glasses later, which helped me a lot. At the beginning, it was difficult but now it’s OK.”
Toumani lost his sight aged seven, and struggled to learn at the same pace as other students. He moved around different schools and had been out of school for a while when his parents heard about the inclusive education project and enrolled him. Now aged 13, he is back at school and learning in a supportive environment for the first time.
Attending his new school has also involved learning a vital new skill: reading in braille. “When I started at school, to befriend other students was easy, but I was not understanding school,” he says. “Once I arrived here in Bamako, I had problems because of the way we write in braille. This was my issue, to write in braille. But now it’s OK.”
Toumani’s parents have seen a transformation in their son. “The fact that Toumani can go to the school has changed him a lot,” says his mother, Bama. “He can manage everything he couldn’t before.”
His father, Drissa, says the new school has given the family more hope for Toumani’s future. “All I want is for Toumani to continue to study, and for him to do something in the future. So, all I can say to Sightsavers is thank for all you did for Toumani. We wish that all of his dreams can come true. Those are our hopes!”
Adizatou is one of the teachers that has been trained to support her students with disabilities. She has seen first-hand the positive impact of inclusive education.
“I’ve been teaching since 2006,” she says. “What I love the most in my job is teaching children. I really like teaching them all I know about all of the subjects.
“I took part in an inclusive education training, and I noticed a lot of improvement because during the training we were told to write bigger letters for the visually impaired children, to light the classroom up well, and to use concrete examples during lessons. It helps them all a lot, so we continue doing it.
“Without this project, the majority of children with disabilities would end up in the streets, in delinquency. Some families think they are unable to learn, but those who have brought their children know that these children are not incapable at all, that they can study as well as the other children.
“The inclusive learning is beneficial for everybody. When we have a child with disabilities in the classroom, we take more time. And when we take more time, there are also a few other children that are behind and they can benefit from the fact that we are going slower.”
From 2017 to 2020, Sightsavers’ inclusive education project in Mali was made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development.