Since its inception, the disability rights movement has used the mantra of “nothing about us, without us” to call for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all matters that impact them. School-to-School International (STS) uses this mantra as our guiding principle in our inclusive education work by ensuring we partner with organizations of persons with disabilities (OPDs) wherever we support inclusive education projects, including Nepal, Rwanda, and the Philippines. Last month, we highlighted the work of Justine Barcenas, a field coordinator for Resources for the Blind Inc. (RBI). This month, we would like to highlight the work of Callixte Ikuzwe, who is a member of the Rwanda Union of the Blind (RUB) and an accessibility and disability inclusion specialist.
Through Hope in His Vision, Callixte established the Hope in His Vision Academy, a center of independent living for the blind, and works as a program manager at Seeing Hands Rwanda, an inclusive community center in Kigali. In 2023, he played an instrumental role supporting the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) that School-to-School International administered for students who are blind or have low vision in Rwanda.
We spoke with Callixte earlier this month. The interview has been edited for clarity and content.
STS: You’re a member of Rwanda Union of the Blind. Can you tell me about the organization and your current work in inclusive education?
Callixte: We work on improving and empowering visually impaired people and blind people in Rwanda. We have different projects that we are working on, including, of course, supporting inclusive and special education and also supporting the livelihood and economic empowerment of the visually impaired community in Rwanda. Not only that, but also helping visually impaired children and persons in general to come out of isolation. Lastly, I am an accessibility and disability inclusion specialist. In education, specifically, I’ve been working with the Rwanda [Basic] Education Board to support the inclusion of teachers and students with special needs. For instance, this year, I was supporting the formulation of ICT curriculum, adapting it to the UNESCO [ICT Competency for Teachers].
STS: Can you tell me about the work you did with STS on the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) for students who are blind and have low vision?
Callixte: I participated in a workshop [for the] Early Grade Reading Assessment that basically assessed the reading fluency of children in lower primary. We were intending to [research] the inclusion of those children in the schools and how their education was progressing compared to non-disabled children. I supported making all materials to be used to be inclusive and also supported the evaluation and the assessment. I also served as an enumerator.
STS: Had you done any work like that before to assess the reading skills of blind students in lower primary?
Callixte: I regularly work with the National Examinations and School Inspection Authority (NESA). But it’s not specifically assessing reading, but it’s all about assessing all educational backgrounds for all children.
STS: What did you think of this new type of assessment—the EGRA?
Callixte: It’s a really fantastic assessment because it gives accurate information based on children’s performance in reading and the way it is scheduled with time limits. In the long-term, it can support [the evaluation] of the improvement of education and the accuracy of teaching using special needs techniques, including braille and sign language. So, the EGRA system is very supportive for inclusive education in terms of learning about the progress of education for children with special needs. But also, if repeated, [it] can give us the statistics, the way to evaluate the gaps, whether the gaps [are] in terms of materials or the gaps in terms of teaching methods and techniques.
STS: What did you learn yourself about blind students and their reading skills by participating as an enumerator?
Callixte: I came up with the idea that certain lower student assessments should not be only focused on school tests and exams, but rather there should be more ingredients in testing them, such as EGRA, because I basically noticed that even the schools themselves do not really know the ability of their children. There is a need of frequently evaluating education successfulness for children with special needs. Most of children get their fluency in lower grades, and children with disabilities or children with special needs never get a chance to access preschool education, mostly because sometimes families do not know how they can support preschool education. … For [education authorities] to understand how those children with special needs can be supported, we need further ingredients like EGRA.
Even for enumerators, like me, personally, I didn’t know before the gap that exists between the education of children with special needs and children without disabilities. In fact, there is a huge gap in the impact of education. Understanding that gap gives us the way to pave the better future for children with special needs in education by advocating.
STS: What do you think are the barriers for children with disabilities in education?
Callixte: If you start with the children who participated in EGRA, none of them are from the district that the school was located. Having that distance between children’s homes and schools that can accommodate them is a very great barrier. Even parents do struggle to take them to school. Sometimes they wait until they can get sponsors. So, basically, having a limited number of schools that can accommodate children with special needs is still a great barrier in our country that prevents children with special needs to [start] their education at the right age.
We also still have the issue in harmonizing the methods used to teach children with special needs. Each school seems to adapt its own way of teaching. Sometimes we find children using different braille grades, different sign languages. There is [also] still a huge, huge gap in terms of tools [and materials] that are used to support children with special needs.
STS: Do you collaborate with other organizations of persons with disabilities? For instance, have you been involved with the National Union of Disability Organizations in Rwanda (NUDOR)?
Callixte: Yes, of course. Rwanda Union of the Blind is a member of that umbrella organization. We were cooperating in introducing inclusive model schools that came [as] the result of a collaborative effort [with Rwanda National Union of the Deaf and others]. We finally introduced at least four inclusive model schools that can accommodate all children regardless of their health, whether they do have disability or they don’t. So basically, our focus is now [to] strengthen those schools.
STS: What’s the next step now that these schools have been established in Rwanda?
Callixte: So, the main purpose [with these inclusive schools] was to minimize the distance to make available education for all children. [As I have told you, we only have, for instance, three special schools for the blind in Rwanda.] Now the schools are being supported because RUB did provide volunteers to support the resource rooms in those schools. We are at a stage to tell the government, ‘Look, we’ve been successful.’
We are advocating that these schools should not be the only inclusive schools, but also the government can support making all public schools inclusive. That’s what we are fighting for. We hope to achieve that, but it requires that kind of collaboration and coming together, to have one voice, to make sure that the government can feel interested in making all education systems inclusive, starting from curriculums and school materials that are prepared by the government, making everything universal designed.
STS: Have you been involved in many projects that are funded by donors like USAID?
STS: Is the role you’re playing in these projects the one you think you should play?
Callixte: Yes. Of course, you know, my role as a disability inclusion specialist is to make sure that persons with disabilities are thought of in projects and are also supported and are benefiting the projects and programs. So, I have not yet achieved what I need to do because sometimes when you say, “Think of persons with disabilities and do this and this.” Sometimes, they say something like, “That is costly. It’s too much to be allocated to persons with disabilities.” But I hope. It’s a journey. It’s a process. We are working. I’m working to try, realize what I’m made of, make sure that persons with disabilities are welcomed and thought of and included in all potential projects and programs that have that huge funding.
STS: Have you seen donors and funders be more interested in inclusive education projects over time and involving persons with disabilities in programming?
Callixte: Funders like USAID, they do try. Basically, you find that some small organizations that will do some amazing things do not benefit [from] a big funding because of the limitation in terms of who can be funded and in which process. Some funders do have very complicated criteria in selecting who they can fund, which really makes the progress to remove all gaps in education very tough and complicated.
STS is grateful for the time Callixte Ikuzwe spent with us for this interview and the valuable insights into education for students who are blind or have low vision in Rwanda. Explore more of STS’s work with OPDs to advance inclusive education. This blog is the second in a multi-part series, other posts in the series include an interview with Mr. Justine Barcenas, former president of the Albay Association of the Deaf, in the Philippines.