(MENAFN – The Conversation)
In Tanzania, most students with albinism attend school with peers who do not live with the condition. The idea behind this approach is that such inclusion will eventually eliminate discrimination against people with albinism – important in a country where up to one in 1,400 people are affected. Albinism, which is a defect in the production of melanin, comes with many associated health problems: poor vision, functional blindness, sensitivity to light, and skin that is very sensitive to heat and sun.
But mainstream schools lack the kind of support services that children with albinism need, such as clinical eye and skin care. This is despite the country’s Persons with Disabilities Act 2010, which states that:
Ideally, schools should have teachers with special needs who are trained in inclusive education and can support students who need special attention. These teachers should be employed from the pre-school level throughout the system. This is currently not the case in most of the thousands of public schools in Tanzania.
There may not be trained special needs teachers in every classroom, but mainstream teachers can do a lot to support students with albinism. Some of them are very simple. Schools can also do more to bring in outside specialists like ophthalmologists and optometrists to support these children.
Teachers need to know which of their students struggle with low vision and plan seating accordingly. It is not helpful to assume that all children can see the blackboard or the teacher equally well from anywhere in the classroom. Teachers should work closely with children’s eye specialists to get this right table plan. Such collaboration helps everyone in the long run. This means that students’ eyesight will not deteriorate even faster; optometrists can be sure their patients are getting the best care even outside of their treatment rooms and teachers can be sure their students are getting the best chance for learning.
Some students will not want to sit in front and should not be forced to do so, but they should be offered alternatives. People with albinism have sensitive eyes, so students with this condition should not sit looking directly into sunlight or under strong overhead lights. Teachers should also remember that students with albinism may have difficulty reading on overhead projector screens due to glare. These students should be allowed to copy the overhead sheets after the teacher is finished with each one.
Font size can also be a problem for visually impaired children. Teachers should take the time to sit down with their students and check whether particular handouts and texts need to be enlarged. This process is also very stimulating for the students. It makes sense, after all, for teachers to consult directly with those most affected: the students themselves.
Finally, students with albinism should be given more time to complete writing exam scripts and schools should ensure that these are presented in large, clear print.
Encouragement is key
Students with albinism may need to use stand or hand-held magnifiers or special reading glasses, such as bifocals with a solid telescopic lens attached to them. They are often reluctant to use their optical aids, which draw attention to them – they are, after all, children or teenagers! Some claim that they can see well without these optical aids. Younger students may deliberately hide, lose, or break their glasses.
Teachers can help overcome this discomfort by dealing with other students who bully their visually impaired peers. They may also talk enthusiastically about optical aids and their benefits.
This kind of encouragement needs to go beyond the classroom setting. Children with albinism may avoid playing activities or sports because their skin is extremely sensitive to the sun. They can also be left behind by other children. Teachers can suggest children with albinism try sports that don’t expose them to the sun, such as aerobics and gymnastics. They can also teach other students about tolerance and inclusion.
There is, however, another side to all this teacher support: if teachers get too involved, they can be accused of favoritism and bring more unwanted attention to their students with albinism. These students need emotional support far beyond that available in their schools and classrooms. Parents need to be really involved in their children’s lives so that they are aware of bullying, visual difficulties or other issues.
The path to follow
Every child needs support to learn effectively. For children with albinism, this support must come from policy makers, teachers, parents and eye care professionals. And this is absolutely crucial, now more than ever, given that children with albinism are very vulnerable to early school leaving. These children deserve an education as much as their peers. Nothing should prevent them from achieving this.
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