School Closings in Assiut Shut Out Disabled, Deaf and Blind Students
ASSIUT, EGYPT—Medhat Mahmoud Raslan’s commute from his rural village roughly 230 miles south of Cairo to his secondary school is long. First, he takes a tuktuk to a taxi station, where he finds a ride to Assiut. Then he catches a bus from the city square to complete his journey.
Raslan, who is blind, used to stay at the school’s dorms so he wouldn’t have to make the commute. But Raslan said he couldn’t do that this year due to school renovations.
“Because of the construction work at school, I preferred to stay at home to focus on studying,” said Raslan. “Exams are approaching and we have not yet finished the curricula.”
Raslan’s school is one among four public schools for blind, deaf and intellectually disabled students that have undergone maintenance and restoration since late last year, closing schools and making it difficult for students to learn. The closings were sudden, the students didn’t get any warning and don’t have any educational alternatives. Almost 1,500 students are affecting by the school closings, said Moetaz Abd Al-Naby, a representative of the Association of People with Disabilities, in Assiut.
Mustafa Abdel Fattah, director general of education buildings in the city, said the schools closed in the middle of the academic year for budgetary reasons and the terms of contracts with the companies involved. One school for the intellectually disabled will be closed until May, while renovations were completed in three other schools and students have since resumed their studies, said Abd Al-Fattah Abu Shama, the Minister of Education’s first secretary in Assiut.
But some students say that the reopened schools are only educating some of the students due to ongoing construction and limited space. At Raslan’s school, for example, only 38 students out of a total of 168 were attending school as of April.
The closings were rooted in Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb’s decision to introduce a plan in November intended to increase efficiency and upgrade safety standards in the city’s schools, according to an official in Assiut who spoke on condition of anonymity. Other closed institutions including a language school also deemed unsafe, and students there were moved elsewhere to study. Because schools for disabled students generally require dormitories, however, those students had no other option.
Construction at Al-Amal Technical Secondary School for Mute Girls in Assiut started last year before the fall semester ended, said a teacher who asked his name not be used, fearing punishment by authorities. As a result, students were forced to take their exams in the kitchen, he said.
Going into the second semester this year, classes for preparatory and secondary students were postponed for two weeks while primary-school students stayed home for a month, the teacher said.
The closings aren’t the only educational challenges that blind, deaf and intellectually disabled students face. Classes at institutions such as the Al-Amal Technical Secondary School for Mute Girls are overcrowded, the teacher said. There also aren’t enough staff members to care for the students, especially in the dorms.
Maha Magdy, an official in an association for the deaf and a sign-language translator, said the education offered at public schools for the deaf is worthless. Teachers are not qualified to teach students with special needs and most learn sign language from the students rather than the other way around. Students who come from poor families are often unable to pay for private lessons that could help compensate for educational quality.
Ahmed, a first-year student at Al-Noor School for the Blind who didn’t give his last name out of fear of retribution, said he only attended the first two weeks of the spring semester and that he learned nothing. Students were instructed to memorize answers to eight questions in every subject, and were told that an upcoming exam would ask students four of those questions, he said.
“How can I study my lessons like this?” he said, adding that the students at his school are given Braille machines that aren’t well maintained. “I worry that in the exam I might receive a machine that is not working properly and fail my exams,” he said.
Advocates for children with special needs are hopeful that the school renovations will be finished over the summer, but less hopeful that the poor quality of the education will be fixed anytime soon.