Opinion & Columnist

Learning disability shaming rife in schools, online, in families

Every child with mental health challenges must have access to institutions that are equipped to deliver correct services

Monica Cheru, Creative Editor

We all have that social media connection. Could be male or female. But for today let us make her a female and call her Millie.

She loves to constantly update her pages. Her online photo album is an archive of the latest clothing trends.

We get to know it immediately the moment she acquires a new “bling” accessory.

Even the misfortunes that befalls her like death and theft are merely avenues for her namedrop her lofty connections, update us on her designer apparel or place her flashy wheels in our faces.


Millie regularly shows us images of her daughter living the life.

We see the daughter dressed in clothes and make up that somehow makes us feel like perverts because we see a sexual object. Millie occasionally posts pictures of her daughter in school uniform at some upmarket school.

But there is one thing that Millie, the queen of over-sharing is not showing us.

While other parents are flaunting the excellent results of their bundles of joy, Millie is strangely silent about her daughter dearest who sat for public exams last year.

This is one area where Millie is not about to shame herself before the online world and in real life by displaying her daughter’s poor academic records.

Because Millie knows that if she posted poor results, she might be lucky enough not to get openly trolled online.

But behind the scenes, DM lines would burn as Millie becomes the object of ridicule. Just because her daughter is not what the world deems bright.

The struggle is real

Millie is just a face of hundreds of thousands of parents and guardians out there who are tormented by the perceived substandard performance of their offspring.

I have been unable to access definitive statistics for Zimbabwe but it seems there are around 300 000 identified learners with disabilities in Zimbabwe.


The majority have physical disabilities with only a few thousand identified as having mental learning disabilities.

It appears severe mental retardation is the chief recognised learning disability.

World Health Organisation statistics put one out of every 10 children as being affected by some learning disability.

So that means Zimbabwe with almost 4 million learners in basic education it is likely that children with learning disabilities could be close to 400 000 with more than 75 percent undiagnosed.

While physical disabilities are clear to everyone and handicaps can often be reduced with the right facilities and tools, most learning disabilities can only be diagnosed by experts.

It is necessary for a child’s disability to be specified in nature and severance.

Once diagnosed the learner needs a specialist teacher who is equipped to deal with their specific disability.

For example, a person with extreme dyscalculia needs totally different teaching from one with mild dysgraphia.

A number of heads that I asked about the process of identifying children with special learning needs said that on paper the School Psychological Services & Special Education Department within the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education is there to serve the needs of learners with disabilities, in reality it is severely underfunded, under staffed and just not capacitated to make sure that every child with special needs is catered for.

The majority of learners with special needs never get any evaluation and remain undiagnosed.


The deck is already stacked against people with learning disabilities.

In countries like the United States children are diagnosed early and assisted with all the latest in technology and learning theories as well as support groups and information for care givers.

But still high school dropout rates, low college enrolment, low paying jobs and attached lower lifestyle standards dog people with disabilities.

With no universal access to education, children with learning disabilities face even stiffer challenges. First of all, there is the screening process exercised by most “good” schools as they consider academic performance above everything.

While the learner be lucky enough to have some athletic prowess, just might slip into a choice school, that in itself is no guarantee that they will access the requisite learning that they need.

Such schools are geared towards high academic achievers and have no facilities for the special needs of learners with disabilities.

It is estimated that only one percent of primary schools in Zimbabwe are equipped to handle learners with special needs. So for the majority of schools, especially in rural areas, children with learning disabilities are foisted on teachers who are not trained to deal with the problem.

A school head said that while his school has a special class and a trained teacher, he feels that the system could be improved.

“Teachers in the classroom just pick out cases that they feel are totally hopeless under normal instruction and push them to the special class.

There the teacher copes as best as they can with the various learning disabilities.

“And we have some learners who excel in that class.

In one year we had a child who had been pushed into the special class coming out as one of the best 10 performers in the Grade Seven Examinations.

That shows that with right teaching, some children with learning disabilities can excel academically and in life.”

In the few schools that do have provision for special needs, being a learner in special class is to be marked as mentally retarded.

Yet learning disabilities do not necessarily mean mental incapacitation. It is just that a child has a different learning process from the majority.

Discrimination within the home

For Lucia, a widowed mother of two who survives on taking any work she can find- usually domestic chores like laundry and ironing and cleaning up, educating her son with disabilities has become a thankless task that she is considering giving up:

“He performs badly at school. I know it is not his fault. He tries very hard. You will never catch him loitering in the streets like the other boys of his age.

He is always poring over his books.

‘‘But come term end, his report just shows that I am wasting my energy paying his fees, buying uniforms, textbooks and all the other school provisions that are so expensive.

“Right now the school levies have gone up. As he is set to write his O Levels, I also need to find exam fees. But lately I have been asking myself if it is worth it when I know that he will get nothing but a chain of Us. But on the other hand, I feel guilty about not giving him a chance.

“But honestly I feel like just letting him drop out and maybe he can find something to do like selling stuff or maybe be a spanner boy and learn to be a mechanic’s assistant. Because I am struggling to keep both my sons in school and it makes sense for me to channel what resources I have towards the younger boy in Form 2 who is clearly bright and bound to do well.”

The hard choice that Lucia faces is common for many parents struggling to take care of bills in the tough economy. And in most cases, the child with learning disability loses out.

With such attitudes in society, children with learning disabilities often feel inadequate.

They conclude that it is futile to remain in school and often drop off from as early as Grade Three.

With no universal access to education measures in effect, economically disadvantaged children with learning disabilities will continue to get a raw deal.

And the stigma pervades to all aspects of their life and will likely last the rest of their lives.

Robust Mental Health Policy needed

There are many issues around mental health that need urgent address in the country.

For example, the justice system is currently unfair to those with mental health challenges as they are often incarcerated without trial for long periods.

While organisations are encouraged to give opportunities to marginalised demographic groups like those with physical disabilities and women, there is deafening silence on those with mental health challenges.

In the education sector there should be a policy ensuring that every child with mental health challenges has access to institutions that are equipped to deliver correct service.

This can be through specialised schools or the mandatory inclusion of special needs facilities at every public school.

As a society we need to stop using words like “dofo” as insults when referring to children with learning disabilities.

We should recognise them as people with different learning processes and not condemn them for conditions that they did not choose.

Just as we cringe from shaming a person for having a physical disability, we should also be equally sensitive to mental challenges and government policy should reflect this.

With famous people like Harry Potter Star Daniel Radcliffe, mogul Richard Branson and actor, producer and writer Whoopi Goldberg being just a few examples of people with learning abilities who have gone on to excel, society should not write off people on the basis of below average school performance.