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Starr News has dug up some distressing facts showing how one of the only two special schools in the Upper East region meant for children born with intellectual disabilities has woefully been nothing but the Cinderella of government’s attention for more than a decade.
Established in 2005 and planted in the middle of Bolgatanga, the regional capital, the St. Charles Unit for Special Needs Children looks after youngsters with such birth defects as cerebral palsy, autism and Down’s syndrome among other dream-threatening conditions tearful observers say no society should wish for the unborn.
When the school started, helpless parents of the disabled children wept deeply and openly after some able-bodied children from the surrounding communities called the school a zoo. They called it a zoo because the intellectually disabled children looked like sub-humans to them and they involuntarily did basic things, like eating and talking, very abnormally. And the young ‘zoo goers’ spent a lot of their spare time in their numbers day after day around the school to watch their disadvantaged peers with pleasure.
And in what even now stands today as the peak of neglect itself, state duty bearers, mandated to ensure child protection and rights, are standing aloof with arms crossed as the rare school, starved of childcare services amid outcries for a helping hand, staggers on the edge of total collapse.
The majority of the 62 children at that basic special school are from extremely poor homes where parents or guardians cannot provide another meal between a light breakfast before lessons begin and a moderate lunch when classes are over. Checks done by Starr News have revealed the extremely needy school is not on the Ghana School Feeding Programme (GSFP). The management of the school lost the struggle to have the children included among the state-fed basic schools after the school-feeding authorities reportedly told them the free lunch was for the village schools only- not for those in the towns like that special needs school.
“We wrote several times but got no word back. We even wrote to the assembly requesting that they should put us on the school-feeding list. They said we were not supposed to be part because we were in town. Our case should have been exceptional. We are vulnerable and we are not many. There are only two special schools of this kind in the region. The other one is at Balobia in Navrongo,” the Headmistress, Fatima Samari, told Starr News.
Hungry children throw stones after first lessons
The school has two classrooms each of which is programmed to have three lessons a day. But only the first lessons are effective. The other lessons are aggressive stone-throwing periods.
Once the energies derived from the breakfast taken at home or from the roadside have been exhausted during the first learning activity, hunger sets in and concentration sets out. As compared to their normal counterparts in the regular schools, the intellectually disabled children have zero tolerance for hunger.
Fully aware they will not eat again until they return home in the afternoon, the longer the teachers keep them in the classrooms, the angrier they get. They cannot express their frustrations as clearly as their normal contemporaries can. So, they throw stones at anybody to explain their pains, caring little about the consequences in the same measure the state duty bearers care very little about them. The severer the hunger gets, the farther the stones travel- and the harder they hit!
“Some of my colleagues do not get food to eat. We eat together from my bowl whenever I bring food. And when there is no food, we sit down looking at each other,” Maximillian Akolgo, a pupil in class 2, told Starr News. A similar statement, coming from his classmate, Lydia Anzebr, seemed to justify the routine hurling of objects when she said: “When we are hungry, our eyes are always turning. And we lose concentration.”
This daily happening has been eating deep into the school’s instructional hours. And it is a critical void the school’s authorities say could have been avoided if the past and the present governments had been sensitive enough to include the school on the school feeding programme register.
“They start fighting, biting, pinching, throwing things when they are hungry. And they cry. It’s taking a heavy toll on our academic work. We are supposed to close at 2:00pm, but the school closes at 12 midday. We would close at 2:00pm if we were on the school feeding programme. Parents decided that we should use the children’s share of the disability percentage of the District Assembly Common Fund to feed the children so that they can concentrate and stay up to 2 o’ clock.
“That share is meant for transportation but parents said we should convert it into feeding, to cook for the children since we are not on the school feeding programme. The amount is Gh¢50 per term for each of the children. But it has not been consistent. We have received for only two terms so far and not all the children were given by the assembly on those two occasions,” the headmistress stressed.
Disabled kids getting more disabled on Bolga Roads
A lot of the children walk across many busy roads unaccompanied to the school and they return home just the same by close of day.
With highflying motorcyclists showing no regard for fellow road users in a fast-expanding regional capital where unstable traffic lights everywhere are about to permanently join the old public telephone booths in the remote realm of extinction and where road markings come and go like the rare leap year, fresh reports about disabled children from that school getting more disabled, or suffering multiple disability, as a result of preventable road crashes have come as no surprise.
As recently as a couple of weeks ago, a girl from the school was rushed to the hospital after a vehicle cleared her off her spot going to the school.
“As you can see, the school is surrounded by busy roads including the Bolgatanga-Navrongo Highway. There are several cases. There was an incident involving two children. One escaped. The other one was rushed to the hospital. Another one in another case had his leg broken. A motorbike also knocked one boy. His leg got broken. Another one had bruises all over by the time she was up on her feet. There was one who was walking with her mother. The mother was holding her bag when the car came from behind and cleared her. She was hospitalised for one week,” Mrs. Samari recounted.
She added: “And just last 2 weeks ago, one of our boys sustained so many cuts, so many cuts on his body. He was knocked down by a motorbike. These are just the ones we know. Some happen and we get to know about them only after the children involved suddenly stop coming to school. It all comes back to the same baseline- the exclusion of this school from the feeding programme. Most of the parents don’t have means of transport. Some had motorbikes but they were stolen. A number of them come from afar, from Sumbrungu (about 15 kilometres away) and the rest. If we were on the programme, we would close at the time the regular schools close and the children in the regular schools who have become used to our children will help them to cross the road as they close together.”
Begging to take part in Special Olympics
The spate of accidents maiming and claiming the disabled children demands that the school is given at least a minibus to prevent further tragedies. But the school has remained a periodic beggar over the years, looking up annually to people in market places and worship centres to raise funds for the Special Olympics organised once a year for all special needs schools across the country in a scarcely advertised tournament hosted in a chosen region.
One of the special needs children, an intelligent William Ayingura, pleaded enthusiastically as his neglected schoolmates listened from behind him: “We don’t have a toilet. We don’t have a urinal. We do it (expel waste) outside. No pipe water and no light. We used to have light so that if one of us had an attack, they would put on the fan; he would get air and he would wake up. But we don’t have light anymore. We want government to also look at us.”
The worried-looking headmistress expatiated the boy’s last point, saying: “What he’s trying to say is that, you know many of the children we have here are epileptic. They suffer seizure attacks sometimes. And whenever such happens, we switch on the fans as part of the process to revive them. But the fans are not working anymore. We used to have light but we were cut off from power supply because we cannot pay the bills. Besides, the classrooms also become too dark and the children cannot see the chalkboard when rainclouds gather during lesson hours. We are supposed to train them how to use the toilet, the kitchen, the urinal etcetera on their own so that they can fit well into the society. But we don’t have any of those facilities. They defecate around. The last time, the nearby SSNIT people came here and warned them seriously not to defecate around their premises.”
Their fate hangs on uncertain promise
Starr News drew the attention of the Bolgatanga Municipal Chief Executive, Joseph Amiyuure, who took over office not too long ago, to the dilemma of the forsaken school.
He issued a guarantee that the school would be added to the free-lunch list once the Ministry of Women, Gender and Social Protection asked that more schools be registered for the school feeding programme.
“There are a number of schools already on the school feeding programme. Until they are increasing the number, I may not have the authority to put any school under the programme until it comes from the gender ministry. If they give us the opportunity to increase the number, as the Municipal Chief Executive I can consider that school.
“That is one of the schools I would be considering if they give that opportunity. Certainly, looking at the type of children you are talking of, they would require that support more than anybody else. Whoever is involved should come to the assembly. We would check our records to see if they have made any request before. But I will write a report about the school- why I think it should be part of the school feeding and submit it to Accra. But if they think it shouldn’t be added, I have done my part,” the MCE asserted in a telephone interview.
It is not certain yet when those needy special needs children will ever find relief. But it is certain that, as long as duty bearers allow the enzymes to continue to bite the walls of their intestines or until the MCE’s promise is fulfilled, the intellectually disabled children will continue to throw objects to express the neglect and the agony their mouths cannot put into words when hungry.