Q: Please tell us about yourself and the path that led you to embraceKulture.
Preston: My name is Christa Preston and I am the Executive Director of embraceKulture. As an active member in the special needs community throughout my life, I have always been interested in the expectations and level of independence of persons with intellectual disabilities in resource restricted areas. Without government or family support, what was their life like? What was their education like? What jobs could or did they have?
With the passing of a close family member with disabilities, I decided it was time to find out. In 2013 I left my position as a consultant to multi-billion dollar acquisitions in the Silicon Valley technology industry to research and experience the state of education of children with cognitive disabilities in developing countries. I traveled to Uganda to a school for children with disabilities where I experienced first hand teaching an overcrowded classroom in a low resource area.
I quickly realized that many of the children were not advancing grade levels, even over a number of years and none of the children were completing primary school. The teachers often expressed to me their frustration with the lack of progress of the children. We found that, while the resource constraints exasperated the issue, the critical problem was the lack of training of the teachers.
Without adapted curriculum, trained teachers, or classroom resources, the majority of students would drop out of the school before finishing. Without skills, they were left dependent on a society that had rejected them and saw them as a burden.
Q: Tell us about embraceKulture: What is embraceKulture? And who created it? What programs and services do you offer and who do you serve?
Preston: In the fight against poverty, persons with disabilities are an often an overlooked group. However, excluding the economic contribution of this population can cost countries 1-7% of GDP. Quality education focused on real life application by incorporating vocational and life skill learning concepts is critical to improve the economic status not just of persons with disabilities but of sub-saharan Africa as a whole.
embraceKulture is working to improve the quality of education in Uganda for children with cognitive and/or developmental disabilities, including autism, down syndrome, and cerebral palsy. We focus on training teachers and integrating vocational training and life skills with academic curriculum to graduation students with the skills to immediately contribute to their community.
Q: What innovative tech solutions do you utilized in your programs?
Preston: My time in Silicon Valley left me with an appreciation for the disruptive force of technology. embraceKulture has designed an innovative mobile solution to empower teachers to improve the quality of education by putting resources and trainings into their hands using their mobile phones. Our low bandwidth solution provides teachers the opportunity for continuing education and development of skills to meet the needs of all learners plus resources and ideas to for lesson plans and classroom management. Content is locally generating by experts and teachers and immediately applicable in classrooms.
Q: In your own words, can you first please elaborate on the situation of children with special needs or disabilities in Uganda. Secondly, also please contrast their situation with that of their US counterparts (in what ways are the situation of children with special needs in the US different from those in Uganda).
Preston: embraceKulture was founded because of the inspiration of one girl, Oliva. When I met Oliva, she was 17. She spoke three languages and loved cooking. She wanted to work in a restaurant and own a house with a room for her mother. If she had been born in America, she would be in college now or working at a restaurant and living independently. But she wasn't. She was born in Uganda, a country where her down syndrome defined her and labeled her a curse.
Oliva, like 99% of girls like her, cannot read. Most believed she was incapable of learning and did not push to teach her. She, like 94% of children like her, has dropped out of primary school. She, like 2.5 million children like her, has been labeled a "curse" and, without skills, would be forced to rely on a society that has rejected her.
However, despite not having access to therapy and specialized services like counterparts in the US, Oliva and children like her have developed a high level of independence, driven perhaps by necessity.
Oliva lived most of her life at a boarding school with one caretaker for over 40 children. As a result she learned to cook for herself, do laundry, care for her friends and herself. On the playground, the levels of friendship and peer teaching I saw from the students often shocked me.
In addition, the economy in Uganda is driven by manual skills such as agriculture. While Oliva struggled with reading she readily developed the skills for cooking. The hands on nature of cooking helped her achieve mathematic milestones as well.
By developing skills that allow her to be a contributing member of her community Oliva is able to combat the negative stigma she faces and prove disability is not inability. With support from her village Oliva would be able to own her own home and, with her family, perhaps even a business.
Q: In your opinion, what are the 3 main challenges children with special needs in Uganda face in terms of pursuing their education in general, and their STEM education specifically?
Summarizing from above, the main challenges are:
1.) Lack of trained teachers
With only two Universities offering degrees in special needs education there are not enough teachers currently in the field or entering the field to meet the unique needs of learners.
2.) Lack of resources/accessibility including classroom resources and curriculum adaptions
As described above, to date there has been inadequate resource allocation to address the needs of these students. Classrooms are often equipped with only chalkboard, chalk, pencil and paper. Visuals are rare as well as manipulatives. Furthermore, teachers are unable to adapt curriculums to meet the needs of learners.
3.) Societal Stigma
Children with disabilities are still often seen as a curse. The vast majority of these children are not in school. Sensitization/outreach efforts have been effective in convincing parents of the need to place all children in school. Unfortunately, due to the above children with disabilities often brought home failing grades and parents were quick to remove them from school.
Q: In your estimation, how can we improve the STEM participation of students with special needs in Uganda?
Preston: Improved participation will be driven by inclusions. According to the UNESCO Salamanca Statement, adopted at the World Conference on Special Needs Education, “Regular schools with inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discrimination, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all.” Inclusion is defined as a process concerned with the identification and removal of barriers, the presence, participation and achievement of all students, with particular emphasis on those groups of learners who may be at risk of marginalization, exclusion or underachievement. By focusing on inclusion we can improve the success of all learners.