Author (s): Eskay M., Onu V. C., Igbo J. N., Obiyo N., Ugwuanyi L.
Affiliated organization: UNN (University of Nigeria, Nsukka)
Type of publication: Academic article
The concept of disability has been examined from various cultural perspectives across the continent of Africa and found that in every culture, disability was perceived differently and such perception shaped the kind of services rendered. This article was aimed at briefly examining the different concepts of disability across the African cultures and then mainly focused on educating children with exceptionalities in Nigeria.
Concepts Across African Cultures
As we grow in our knowledge of the dynamics surrounding the concepts of culture and disability, we begin to realize that individual perceptions and languages play a vital role in our understanding of who we are as a people and as a culture. According to Wright (1960), language is not merely an instrument for voicing ideas, but also plays a role in shaping ideas by guiding the experience of those who use it.
Characteristics of Culture and disability within the African Cultures
Characteristics and interpretation of those characteristics are dramatically influenced by the culture in which the individual with disability resides; the governmental bureaucrats responsible for the oversight of programs for the disabled are affected by both the culture and the disabling condition. Adding labels to people with disability imposes severe limits on them from a cultural, social and economic perspective; this imposed limitation that isolates them from the culture and the workplace.
Culture can be seen as a “traditional”, a written or an oral method to pass cultural heritage from one generation to another. The development of genetic theory has come to view culture in a traditional sense as a “kind of gene pool” exiting at the level of social symbolism and meaning rather than biology and with ideation rather than material existence.
Culture denotes an identifiable pattern of behavior exhibited in response to diverse phenomena in their environment; a specific meaning is often attached to individual and group encounters to that environment. People create meaning from their interactions with their environment; these meanings and interpretations about humanity, nature and life give rise to a philosophy about that society. It is from this philosophy that individuals establish a reference point from which to judge actions, or non-actions of a society. A culture learned varies over time. Language is a key feature differentiating it from other cultures; it varies over time also. There are difficulties in determining a definition applicable to all cultures, as a culture varies over time, the definition of disability that culture uses changes over time as well.
The WHO (World Health Organization) defined disability as: “An impairment or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function; a disability is any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being; a handicap is a disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or a disability, that prevents the fulfillment of a role that is considered normal (depending on age, sex and social and cultural factors) for that individual”.
A Collective View of Disability and Culture
One’s disability and culture are central to determine the position or the status that the individual is given in a specific society. Often, one’s disability conforming to social expectations frequently is rewarded for that behavior; the culture tends to accept those who are willing to conform to given values, standards of behavior and ethical concerns. Cultural understanding is also shaped by the meanings attached to various behaviors by the social and economic organization of a given society, or by other internal and external cultural dynamics, a culture imposes standards upon all citizens of that given culture.
Educating children with exceptionalities in Nigeria
Educating Children With Exceptionalities Before Colonialism Before the colonial era, Nigeria’s system of education was completely different from the Western system. Nigerians believed in traditional education, which means that there were cardinal goals the citizens needed to pursue in order to develop fully and thereby join the societal mainstream in contributing to the smooth running of the society. These goals were, according to Fafunwa and Aisiku, to develop the latent physical skills; inculcate respect for elders and those in a position of authority; develop intellectual skills; acquire specific vocational training and develop a healthy attitude toward one’s labor; and understand, appreciate and promote the cultural heritage of the community at large.
It is no doubt that before the advent of the Europeans into the country, disability was seen as a “concept”. This concept did not have any meaning in the society, because it was believed to be a Western idea. This means that children with varying forms of disabilities, such as learning disabilities and/or behavior disorders were educated together with those considered not to have disabilities and used the same curricular of instruction. These learners with exceptionalities were, however, seen and considered to be “societal defaults”, because of their societal stands, and thus, were perceived negatively and treated badly in some parts of the country. In spite of their negative perceptions and treatment in the society, the haves were still able to take care of the have-nots simply because of the societal beliefs and expectations that every person within the society must contribute to raising the children within that society.
The kind of educational system at that time was more inclusive, which allowed for both students with or without disabilities to be educated in one classroom and used the same curricula of instruction. Some teachers, in spite of their negative perceptions of the children with exceptionalities due to cultural beliefs about them, still taught and challenged them to maximize their academic and social potentials. Their reasons for helping these learners maximize their potentials supported the societal beliefs that every person within the society must be helped in one way or the other to reach those societal expected cardinal goals that were helpful in maintaining economic and social stability within the Nigerian and other African societies.
Cultural beliefs and attitudes toward children with disabilities
In Nigerian society, children with disabilities have been incorrectly understood, and this misunderstanding has led to their negative perception and treatment. The basic problem affecting children with disabilities was the overcoming of negative attitudes and misunderstanding about the significance of their handicapping conditions.
These beliefs cut across the Nigerian society and hence have a similar impact on the citizens’ attitudes on learners with disabilities. According to Onwuegbu, Abang and Ozoji and later supported by Marten and Eskay, the causes of such negative perceptions on learners with disabilities were related to: a curse from God (due to gross disobedience to God’s commandments); ancestral violation of societal norms (e.g., due to stealing); offenses against gods of the land (e.g., fighting within the society); breaking laws and family sins (e.g., stealing and denying); misfortune (e.g., due to marriage incest); witches and wizards (e.g., society saw them as witches and wizards); adultery (a major abomination); a warning from the gods of the land (due to pollution of water and the land); arguing and fighting with the elders (a societal taboo); misdeed in a previous life (such as stealing); illegal or unapproved marriage by the societal elders (arguing and fighting against the elderly advice in marriage); possession by evil spirits (due to gross societal disobedience ); and many others.
Educating children with Exceptionalities
During Colonialism During the colonial era, a different kind of educational system took place. The European colonial “exploiters” came to the country with missionaries, who viewed the practices upheld by the Nigerian society to be against God, and whose intentions were different. First, they mishandled the already instituted educational system for their own benefits.
The cultural heritage, which included an emphasis on the excommunication of the societal defaults such as learners with disabilities and/or behavior disorders who could not contribute to the smooth running of the society, was not appreciated nor promoted.
Educating Children With Exceptionalities
After Colonialism As soon as Nigeria got her independence from Britain, the educational system was still flourishing and the learners were still learning together and the same curriculum was still being used. However, it was not long after independence that the genocidal war against Biafra by Nigeria began. It lasted for about three years (from 1966 to 1970) before re-integration of all parties. There is little doubt that the Nigerian educational system was also affected. There was no availability of program of service for students with disabilities in place. The war contributed adversely to enhancing a strong educational foundation in the country, let alone the education of the learners with disabilities.
This impact continued until around 1976 to 1977, when the Federal Government of Nigeria declared its intention to educate all its citizens, including learners with disabilities. However, the degree of implementation was affected by funding, legislative policy, enrollment and qualified special educators, then deviations from effective implementation would add to the continuing societal negative perceptions of these learners.
The kind of educational system at that time was more inclusive, which allowed for both students with or without disabilities to be educated in one classroom and used the same curricula of instruction
Qualified general and special education practitioners. There are still not enough qualified special educators to meet the educational needs and care of persons with disabilities in the society. Many unqualified special education teachers are left to teach these individuals. As a result, there is a poor implementation of the National Educational Policy.
Address to legal mechanism. In any democratic society, no program can be successful without legal enforcement. This absence of legal mandate leads to civil right violation and the lack of adequate programming. In addition, it challenges the local, state and federal governments to fund special education programs. There is no doubt that the availability of funds would have helped in providing adequate in-service training for teachers and erecting classroom buildings to accommodate these learners.
Future Perspectives of Special Education in Nigeria
Through the years, special education in Nigeria has made some progresses, whereby both learners with and without disabilities were taught in the same classroom, and used the same curricula. Most educators, following the societal expected cardinal goals applied differentiated instruction to helping these learners maximize their academic potentials. The missionaries who came with the British “colonizers” also helped in pointing out the need to accommodate learners with disabilities in the same classroom with those without and in the society. Disability was completely a new phenomenon in Nigerian society.
This new concept began to gain attention during the colonial rule. It was short lived, because after the independence, learners with disabilities began to embrace some obstacles. These obstacles include no legal mandates that are put in place to enforce it. The only special education mandate comes from Section 8 of the National Policy on Education. As a result, accountability for special education is affected; services for people with disabilities are not reachable, parental rights to due process are denied; and these people with special needs are left to suffer for a cause they do not know. To look at the future, Nigeria must join other progressive nations to advocate for the rights of learners with disabilities and help them join the mainstream of society.
To join other progressive countries in recognizing, protecting and maintaining the rights of learners with exceptionalities, it is imperative that Nigeria and indeed many African governments begin to shift its paradigm in the 21st century by reflecting on the pros of its old educational systems, and begin to embrace them. Clearly, it is important that they look at the future as it includes these learners into the mainstream of society and help them to maximize their fullest potentials. This integration could be accomplished using these suggested recommendations:
An urgent shift in paradigm Governments and the population must change the way they think about people with disabilities. The legislative arm of these governments must re-establish and create new legislations for implementations and enforcements for equal opportunities. The new law with national outlook and new departments must be enforced even at local levels. Such new departments must have authority to investigate charges of discriminations against corporations and individuals and make concerted findings.
The new Legislative Act, while protecting the disabled children and adults with a modern blend and utilization of today’s 21st century technology, can also be wrapped around the culture and beliefs of the people. Institute advocacy groups an institution of advocacy groups will be extremely helpful. Individuals must lobby for the rights of person with special needs. Governments should encourage advocacy groups, independent investigative agencies to free from control by any local, state and national authorities.
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