The Right to Education of the Special Needs Child in Nigeria: – A Wake – Up Call

by Nneka Obiagwu


The right to free, compulsory and comprehensive primary/basic education which ensures the development of a child’s mental, physical, social and psychological wellbeing is a universal legal entitlement guaranteed to children the world over and it is also a moral claim.

This right to education is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which our great nation Nigeria is signatory to, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and also to The Child Rights Act 2003 of Nigeria. Some state governments in Nigeria also have these rights enshrined such as in The 2007 Child Rights Law of Lagos State and the Lagos State Special Peoples Law 2011.


Unfortunately, all these provisions have not guaranteed that these rights are extended to children with special needs in Nigeria because their enforcement has been neglected by the government.

The rights of the child with special needs in Nigeria is constantly violated due in part to widespread ignorance within the populace and to strongly held cultural beliefs, perceptions and superstitions amongst our people about the origins, causes or implications of a disorder or disability leading to severe discrimination, stigmatization and harmful practices against affected children. A culture unfortunately that often sees no value in educating children with special needs.

This article does not focus on all aspects of neglect and abuse experienced by the child with special needs in Nigeria but instead, draws attention to the education of children with special needs or the lack thereof. The phrase – child-with-special-needs – will include any neuro-developmental condition that requires tailored education and related services and includes in particular, children with an autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, downs syndrome, epilepsy and other learning disorders. This is because, individuals with physical or visual impairments are somewhat less discriminated against in the provision of educational services because the disabilities are obvious unlike the aforementioned conditions which we refer to as the ‘invisible’ disorders (baring cerebral palsy and downs syndrome).

I am the mother of a young child with special needs and our personal experience in sourcing for the required educational and related services as part of his recovery protocol was what led to my awareness of the dearth in services available for children with special needs here in Nigeria. Following my son’s regression, it soon became apparent that the mainstream school he hitherto attended was no longer sufficient in addressing his immediate educational needs. Unable to avail ourselves of any government-sponsored services because none existed, I was left providing additional learning support for him based on relentless research on the best practices for him. Eventually and after almost a year of searching, we were able to enroll him in a privately- run special school for children with autism and related disorders; one of the very few that existed at the time, servicing the whole nation.

Our experience opened our eyes to the great injustice being meted out to children with special needs in regards to their right to the same privileges enjoyed by their peers in Nigeria. Further investigations revealed that less than 5% of children with special needs have access to the education they are entitled to by law and of this 5%, less than 1% had this right guaranteed through services provided by the government through the Universal Basic Education Scheme which guarantees free education to all primary aged pupils within the public school system. The remaining 4% accessed this often expensive service through privately run special schools or service providers.

Our investigations found no federally funded program for our target community and only one state government sponsored scheme, and of the services provided by the government, we found it to be lacking in fulfilling its goals of providing a comprehensive education. Our investigations exposed a flawed understanding of the educational needs of children with special needs, a dearth of qualified professionals including special educators, speech language pathologists, occupational, physical and music therapists etc.; a total disregard for the dignity of the individuals enrolled, neglect of existing infrastructure and facilities and an unusable and unsuitable curriculum with impassable standardized tests.

All the units visited were in an abysmal state of disorder and chaos, overpopulated and under staffed with absolutely no learning taking place. In one of such places was a classroom with just one lone teacher and 50 pupils with differing special needs; some on the autism spectrum, some with physical/ hearing impairments, others with cerebral palsy, epilepsy and downs syndrome ranging in age from 4years to 24 years with absolutely no additional teaching or non-teaching support.

The ‘best’ scenario we found was a unit consisting of 7 teachers with 99 students with different challenges and one care – giver. While we thought the services to be meager at best, we were encouraged by the initiative shown by the state in remembering children with special needs and trying to include them in the state educational policies, albeit, through a flawed system but we also wondered what manner of education the government expects the children to acquire in such places? Also, we questioned our government’s commitment to our children’s legal entitlements. Worthy of mention are the few dedicated heroes in the system; the teachers who for years, have been committed to caring for the children within their care, to the best of their abilities, given the limiting circumstances they have been forced to function in. These unsung heroes are truly the ones deserving of national honours.

Children like my son have made great progress towards achieving their full potential and hopefully will eventually live independent, productive and successful lives due in part to the opportunity they have had in receiving privately funded tailored education and related services, often at very high expense and mostly to the grace of God upon their lives. Does this therefore imply we should allow government to shirk its responsibilities towards an often maligned community? Are we to be satisfied in allowing the majority of citizens of this our great nation who have children with special needs, to whom privately funded tailored education is beyond their grasp, to resort to abuse as is often the case; or, like most of the overwhelmed parents we have met, pray for their children to die, so they can have peace? This is a shocking but true sentiment expressed by many hardworking parents who just have no other recourse. That is really an indictment on the part of government for it is the responsibility of government to provide the most basic support for children with special needs, a just and universal practice. Our children are entitled to an education tailored to their needs. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that their rights, as already enshrined in our laws are granted; to develop, as well as provide a tailored national education curriculum/policy for children with special needs that will be implemented nationwide. In addition, they are to establish a special needs unit in all existing or future government funded public schools and ensure such schools equally benefit from the upgrade and restructuring going on presently in the public schools. The special-needs units will need an increase in the number of ably qualified professionals that will administer to the children; a rigorous

training and train-the-trainer program to ensure a continuous supply of qualified teachers, therapists and caregivers who are up to speed on universal standards of teaching and care and to enforce a monitoring system to ensure best practices.

We believe that this is not beyond the realm of possibility; let us remember that families need support, knowledge and skills to effectively intervene, advocate for their children and access services. Our government can and must rise to fulfill their obligations in ensuring that the right of the child with special needs to a free, compulsory and comprehensive education is no longer violated. We truly believe that education is the greatest gift you can give an individual and also that educating a child with special needs is not only a right that cannot be denied but also a great tool for helping affected persons identify, develop and maximize their potentials.

Nneka Obiagwu is the Founder/ President of the Child Restoration Initiative (CRI) – an NGO focused on creating awareness and driving educational advocacy for children with developmental and learning disorders. 

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