The blue sky in Abuja is beautifully illuminated, even though it’s been raining.
It is set against the lush green vegetation undulating over the hills as we drive out of the city centre into Kuje.
Our mission today is simple; we are going to assess a school for children with special needs; where I can get my son enrolled.
The search for an appropriate institution which would also be cost effective has been tasking, almost proving impossible to achieve.
A man nearby held his child, somewhat supporting him; their movement awkward as he (the child) seemed reluctant. His head tilted to the left; his left hand pulling the collar of his shirt and was chewing on it; he really wasn’t looking at where he was going.
The woman holding a carton (most probably containing some essentials) trudged on behind them. Both parents had a very warm smile.
Our eyes met, and we exchanged broader smiles and nodded as we walked past each other. They headed for the admin block while we headed in the opposite direction, to the classroom area.
Along a walk way leading to the classrooms from the building where tailoring, barbing and other skills are learnt, a teenager, probably 13, wobbled past us.
He was non-verbal but mumbled something, which told me he was telling me, ‘good morning’, and I replied him.
He had knocked-knees, he had a walking stick to help him with movements; his eyes were bright, deeply set and had a bright smile, revealing very beautiful well-set dentition and his hair was neat.
Somewhere across the lawn, a young boy sat on a boulder – one of those used to create some aestheticism to the centre. The sun was up at about midday. My attention was drawn to this boy, by a lady who was wondering what he was doing sitting in the sun as she hurried past us to get to where he was sitting. She smiled at me and we exchanged pleasantries.
We hurried into the classroom where my son was to be assessed, to evaluate his level of need and how he would be placed within a broad and somewhat unending range of developmental needs.
The assessment itself was fun. The woman (won’t mention her name since I did not ask her permission), was professional.
After ten years of visiting many care givers, I know those, who know, from those, who are trying to know.
She was warm and patient and asked all the usual questions to help her documentation. What struck me was that after she had done all her questioning, she engaged me in a friendly conversation about my son, obviously trying to get as much from me.
We went into areas that might not fall into the scientific and academic categorization in the form she was filling, but which will help her and the institution to care for my child.
Then came the written test for my child. At this point, I had to turn my back on him. The boy can act up sometimes especially when I am around.
The tests were concluded, and we got a place. I knew we would. While the tests were going on, a few of the staff came in, smile at me warmly and of course, looked at the child we brought, and nodded approvingly.
Only a parent with a child with special needs understands and appreciates what those smiles mean. To me, it is not just welcoming; it is reassuring. It tells you they want you; it tells you they are not judgmental; it tells you, you will be okay.
With the tests concluded, it was time to report back to the administrators who had directed that a placement test be conducted. Now we headed back to the administration block, to the classroom.
The kind woman, who led us, wanted us to take a different route, probably, so we could see another part of the school, but I chose to go the way we came. I needed more time to see some things, I needed to be sure that my brain and my eyes were not playing tricks on me as we re being led to the classrooms.
At one end of the block, the ceiling had fallen off and the roof was visible. I peeped into a classroom and it was the same. It appears work was going on but had not been completed.
Then the walls were damp and soggy. The rains were sipping or pouring into the building, the walls were uneven as some were caked out.
The building that housed the vocational centres had water pouring in. A woman nearb, guessing my concern, said: ‘They have come to assess it Ma. I am sure they will soon fix it’.
Without turning my head, I asked how long it had been like this and she replied in Pidgin English: ‘E don tey small’ (It’s been a while). It was obvious.
The School for the Handicapped located in Kuje was established in 1999 by the then FCT administration under Jeremiah Useni.
It was funded through the, then Family Support Programme, before it was taken over in 2006 by the Universal Basic Education Board, UBEB.
It was conceived at that time, to be a centre of intervention for children and those with special needs, equipped with a vocational training centre, such that those with varying challenges could come in, learn some skills and be productive, at least to themselves.
The school, today, has 207 participants with varying needs excluding visual and hearing impairment.
The government-owned school is tuition free and accessible to everyone.
Though tuition free, I have received a long list of items to purchase for my child. I am also expected to pay N13,000 as PTA levy. This request for the PTA levy came with an explanation that the amount was set by parents because they directly employed 13 support staff.
For staffing, I am told that the school has 64 staff, among them, 24 specially trained teachers, 24 non-teaching staff and the 13-staff recruited by the Parents.
In all, 64 staff are employed to support 207 participants with special needs in a boarding facility, when there ought to be at least 3 staff per child.
However, the 64 staff include administrative staff who do not work directly with the children.
Because of a dearth of literature online, I called one of our care givers in Nigeria, Mr Francis, who told me that in a typical class, a facilitator cannot have more than 2 children with Asperger’s syndrome.
It is well documented that “class size is impacted by other variables – including use of paraprofessionals and teacher experience’’- plays a huge role in the quantum of deliverables and its impact on the children.
Educationists also say that “there is no one best teaching methodology to assure students success’’, but only teachers and caregivers who have the right working environment who are properly motivated, who do not work long hours, with more children, can decide on different methodologies to help unleash the potentials of such individuals, mostly children, to succeed.
The school told me they have had several success stories. I am told some of the children that came into the facility have been mainstreamed into regular schools and for these children, some of the teachers in the centre accompany them to the regular school to continue the support to help them learn. They said some of them are in the university today.
They also say they have also successfully equipped them with many with skills. The school has a beautiful ICT room with modern computers.
At the entrance to that ICT room shows it was supported by the Nigeria Communications Commission.
I took time to ask about their feeding pattern. Gladly, I was told they are fed three times a day, and parents don’t have to pay for it either. There are however challenges with receiving government subventions and what it can buy.
They proudly told me they also receive a lot of support from NGOs and kind-hearted Nigerians but it usually does not come at the time it is most needed or in an organized pattern. Sometimes there is a glut and many other times, they must go out of their way to seek funding to keep themselves going and then do what we all know how to do: pray to God to touch the heart of Nigerians to come to their aid.
In between the glut and the scarcity, nutritional deficiencies, desperation would have set in. I was told parents can bring in snacks and meals for the children if you live close by and if you can afford it.
So, I am supposed to take a chance on this like every other parent who brings a child into the school.
The name of the school alone is due for a change. School for the handicapped? The world has moved beyond seeing them as handicapped. A new name should reflect what the teachers and care givers transmitted to me with their smiles- hope, assurance, love.
I did not bother going into the hostels. I did not request to see them. I have a child that needs my care now.
I did not notice the weather anymore. I don’t know what the sky looked like. I didn’t know if the trees were green or pale. I just have a child that needs a functioning system.
I have a child that needs help.
I have a child that needs his government.