International Spotlight: Inclusive Education and deaf children in Rwanda

Where we have been

Deaf education in Rwanda emerged as private organizations’ initiatives, mostly religious congregations, and charities. Instruction was delivered using listening and spoken language, in the local language (Kinyarwanda) supported by signs. Each school/center used its own curriculum and included three courses: reading, writing and arithmetic. These courses were emphasized during the first three years and were consistent with deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) learners’ needs. DHH children, who start school at six or seven years-old, often arrived language deprived. As children progressed toward upper classes of primary education, a social studies class and vocational training were added.

A small group of DHH students, who were considered able to cope in the mainstream schools, were enrolled in public schools and supported by the special school. These children overcame many hurdles: teachers were not qualified to teach this group and there were no support services, such as sign language interpreters. Consequently, they missed information and social integration was nonexistent.

Where we are

Rwanda has embarked on an inclusive education approach to tackle the educational needs of all children with disabilities. The rationale was that children with disabilities needed to socialize with their peers without disabilities. Now, schools for the deaf are labeled as “a barrier to integration”; parents are encouraged to opt for public schools close to their homes. The government has partnered with international non-government organizations to train teachers at some mainstream schools on inclusive education principles and practices, including a few weeks of Rwandan Sign Language (RSL) training. Nevertheless, inclusive education doesn’t address DHH learners’ needs because breaking down communication barriers and their language needs are not prioritized. Knowledge of RSL alone is not enough for teachers to facilitate learning for DHH children. Teachers require new methods that match DHH children’s language, communication, and visual learning needs.

Where we are going

The latest development in the education of DHH children in Rwanda has been to transform special schools for the deaf into inclusive schools. These schools are no longer exclusively reserved for DHH learners, creating new obstacles. First, the country doesn’t have enough schools to serve all Rwandan deaf children; this new initiative reduces placements available for DHH children. It further reduces placements for those whose best option to education is within a whole-deaf classroom. Second, these schools still require improvement in the quality of services to DHH students; this initiative will distract educators from developing into professionals in Deaf Education specifically. Third, the standard curriculum used in all Rwandan schools doesn’t address the needs of all DHH children. Finally, the initiative pushes educators to focus on inclusive practices or placements rather than what is best for the individual.

This new initiative overlooks that the urgency lies in actually building the capacities to provide quality education for all DHH children. These schools could become centers of excellence where DHH children who are not best served in the mainstream/inclusive schools can receive appropriate and quality education. These schools could also become deaf education resource centers for nearby inclusive schools.


While inclusive education is widely recommended as the appropriate approach to educating children with disabilities, including DHH children, its relevance to addressing the educational needs of DHH children is still debatable. Inclusive education would be successful with DHH learners if it did not involve altering the curriculum, using traditional methodologies, as well as dealing with a new language, such as RSL.

In regard to the recent wave of enrolling hearing children within deaf schools, it’s imperative that educators acknowledge that social integration is not the most important need of DHH children. They require first and foremost access to language, communication, and active participation in their learning. These components are non-negotiable and will play a decisive role in the success of the subsequent academic journey. Social integration is also necessary; however, it can’t happen without a language and communication. The solution really lies in strategies that tackle the needs of DHH children.

A good starting point should be to recognize that DHH children usually enter school at the age of seven with a language delay and background knowledge gap. Adapting the curriculum to their needs and focusing on imparting a language to these children should be prioritized. Also, providing appropriate teacher training contributes greatly to the education of DHH children. Educators of DHH children, regardless the educational settings, should know how DHH children learn, and adopt appropriate methodologies that match their learning needs.

Posted on July 12, 2019 by
Jeanne d’Arc Ntigulirwa
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology


Further reading