In Zimbabwe, Braille textbooks provide more chidren with equal access to learning

By Tapuwa L. Mutseyekwa

HARARE, Zimbabwe, 30 June 2011 – Laura Muzambi, 12, is reading a story which begins with the author writing about a girl called Mary. He describes in detail her glossy red hair, dazzling eyes and colourful dress.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Anja Baron reports on the use of Braille for visually impaired children in Zimbabwe. Watch in RealPlayer

As someone who is visually impaired, Laura will never get the chance to see these descriptions of beauty, but for this awe-inspiring and ambitious girl, this does not deter her from finishing the passage and work on the comprehension assignment which follows.

“After reading this passage, I have to answer the questions and then my teacher will assess my work,” says Laura, as she describes her determination to work with speed and accuracy at all times. “In two years time, I will move to a different school and learn with children who can see. I still want to be top of the class when I go there.”

High ambitions

Laura is top of her fifth grade class at St. Giles School for Children with Special Needs. At the school today, learning morale is especially high as pupils have been given the chance to work at the same pace as their sighted peers throughout Zimbabwe.

Through the UNICEF-supported initiative to provide primary school textbooks in Braille, an opportunity to hold a book and read has unveiled a lot of optimism for children who previously did not have this chance.

When the Government of Zimbabwe, in partnership with UNICEF and the international donor community, launched the Education Transition Fund last year, $52 million was raised to produce and distribute textbooks to every child in primary school in Zimbabwe and reach a 1:1 ratio of pupil to textbook. More than 15 million textbooks have now been produced and distributed for four main subjects: English, Mathematics, Environmental Science and one local language.

It is under the Education Transition Fund that Braille textbooks have also been developed to allow children like Laura equal access to education. About 3,200 copies of the same core subjects have been produced in Braille.

Equal access to education

“Zimbabwe’s education system has no separate syllabus for children with visual impairment. In the absence of Braille textbooks and Braille machines, many of these children have been disadvantaged,” says UNICEF Representative in Zimbabwe Peter Salama. “This undertaking will help bring the textbook ratio to 1:1, including among the readers of Braille and give the children an equal opportunity for learning.” It is estimated that more than 10 per cent of children in Zimbabwe are living with some form of disability such as visual impairment.

Thanks to the support for the Education Transition Fund from the Governments of Australia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the USA and the European Commission, Laura and her fellow students no longer rely on their teacher reading the sole Braille textbook in class. Now each can have a book of their own. Laura’s school has also received 17 brand new Braille machines to make writing easier for the children.

A life line to learning

Sister Catherine Johnson, a Dominican Sister who runs a Braille library and a centre for people with visual impairments, is responsible for the production of the Braille textbooks and is thrilled about what has been done. She has worked with children with visual impairments for more than 20 years and recognises this as one of the most impressive, challenging and worthwhile schemes to ensure the inclusion of all children in the education system. The Braille books are being printed and made available to all schools throughout Zimbabwe through a borrowing system with the Braille library.

“We have only one printing machine here and we have been running it non-stop to make sure that these books are done,” says Sister Catherine as she explains how her small team of four volunteers has worked through the cumbersome process of translating, embossing, printing, proofreading and then binding the books.

“We are only too happy to have these books done because children with visual impairments have been disadvantaged for too long and this is now their life line to education.”