When most people think of Rwanda, they cannot help but remember the country’s tragic history. In a period of 100 days in 1994, over a million Tutsi were killed in what is considered one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. Today, however, Rwanda is better thought of as a country of warm, welcoming people and diverse natural beauty. Known as the land of a thousand hills, the mountainous central African country is located just 75 miles south of the equator and boasts dense, equatorial forests in the northwest and a tropical savannah in the east, with five volcanoes, 23 lakes and numerous rivers (Government of Rwanda, 2020).
One of the unfortunate consequences of the violence during the 1994 genocide was an increased prevalence of people with disabilities in Rwanda, a fact that has helped to shape a strong disability movement within the country (Njelesani et al., 2018). The government of Rwanda is now committed to protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, especially the right to education. This is reflected in the Special Needs and Inclusive Education Policy (2018), which counts among its priorities the equitable access to education for students with special educational needs in mainstream and special schools.
The promise of providing an equitable education to students with disabilities is not simple. The 2014 Rwandan school census estimated that around 24,862 children with disabilities were attending preschool, primary and lower secondary schools. This represents less than one-percent of all students enrolled at that time (UNICEF / Education Development Trust, 2016). According to the 2011 World Health Organization’s World Report on Disability, approximately 5.1% of children between birth and 14 years of age live with some type of disability. It is likely, therefore, that many children attending school in Rwanda have unidentified disabilities. This is further supported by the fact that it is often teachers who fill out the school census and the identification of children with disabilities tends to focus on those readily noticeable impairments.
To help Rwandan teachers meet the needs of all their students, including those who may have special educational needs but who have not been formally identified as having disabilities, Inclusive Development Partners (IDP) has partnered with the Soma Umenye project (funded by USAID and led by Chemonics International) on an inclusive education pilot.
In the period from January to March, 2020, the team provided training and follow-up support to 25 first grade teachers, head teachers, and sector education inspectors, on Universal Design For Learning (UDL) strategies that have been specifically considered for use in the unique context of Rwandan schools.
UDL is based on the premise that by offering learners flexibility in the way information is presented (multiple means of representation), the way learners engage with materials (multiple means of engagement), and the ways learners express their understanding (multiple means of action and expression), teachers can better prepare for the variability in their students that is natural in human development (Meyer et al., 2014). A further advantage of UDL is that it does not rely upon specific technologies or resources. This is important for Rwandan schools, where many classrooms do not always have consistent access to electricity and material resources are limited to those objects teachers can readily find in their environment.
What does UDL look like in the Rwandan classroom?
Engagement: To keep students engaged, teachers tried a number of different strategies, including using a visual schedule at the beginning of class to help students know the expectations for the lesson, singing the alphabet song while clapping or pointing at the letters they have already learned, and implementing classroom rewards wherein the teacher would dance or sing for the students when they successfully completed their work.
Representation: To provide multiple means of representation, teachers sometimes made models of letters out of sticks or folded grasses that students could touch, brought in household objects to act out the events of a story (such as dirty vegetables and a bucket to demonstrate washing), or made a game of mixed syllable cards for students to build words out of.
Action/Expression: In order to provide students with flexibility when demonstrating their understanding, teachers would ask students to walk around the room and point to objects that began with a target letter sound, match words with their pictures on the chalkboard, or work in pairs to share ideas.
How do these activities differ from good teaching?
Many of the UDL strategies introduced during this project may seem like “just good teaching”. Traditional teaching in Rwanda, however, relies heavily on a model in which students, seated in rows, follow along in unison as a teacher writes on a chalkboard. This is a legacy that the Soma Umenye project has attempted to address more generally, through the provision of scripted lesson plans that build in evidence-based literacy strategies and student-centered methods. Adding to this innovation, the UDL strategies observed in the early months of the pilot project in Rwanda represent a new way of thinking about how students engage with learning. A major emphasis across these strategies is the increased participation of students in the learning process, whether it be through more hands-on learning opportunities or small groups where the students support one another. As one teacher put it:
“Before UDL, I didn’t know what to do with these students (students with disabilities); we just brought them in, but we didn’t ask them questions or anything. Now I know I can support these students. UDL has made all learners our friends.”
Njelesani, J., Siegel, J., & Ullrich, E. (2018). Realization of the rights of persons with disabilities in Rwanda. PLoS ONE, 13(5), E0196347.
Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. T. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. CAST Professional Publishing.
Republic of Rwanda. (2020). Welcome to Rwanda. Republic of Rwanda. https://www.gov.rw/
Republic of Rwanda. (2018). Revised special needs and inclusive education policy. Ministry of Education. https://mineduc.gov.rw/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf_files/SNE_Policy__4.10.2018.pdf
UNICEF / Education Development Trust (2016). A study on children with disabilities and their right to education: Republic of Rwanda. https://www.unicef.org/esaro/Rwanda-children-with-disabilities-UNICEF-EDT-2016.pdf
World Health Organization. (2011). World report on disability 2011. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int
Nicholas Hoekstra is a visually impaired martial artist who somehow found himself pursuing a PhD in special education. After several years working in international development in Ecuador, as an advisor on inclusion, and then with the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Accessible Books Consortium, Nick became interested in strategies for inclusive education in low-income and low-resource environments. He has worked on projects in over 20 developing and least developed countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.