Botswana delegation visits WCU, building an international connection for special needs education

Members of a Botswana delegation discuss presentations prior to a public forum.

A delegation of special education teachers and cultural ambassadors from the Republic of Botswana spent a week at Western Carolina University recently in an engagement mission to learn, share and further a burgeoning partnership with the university.

Educators in Botswana, a country of about 2 million people in southern Africa, want to expand skills in meeting the needs of students with severe disabilities, autism, deafness and blindness. Initial connections were made by a WCU communication sciences and disorders student and Amy Rose, assistant professor of communication sciences, during a trip there in 2015. That contact expanded last summer to a study abroad trip involving 10 WCU students, part of WCU’s 2016-17 interdisciplinary learning theme “Africa! More than a Continent,” and was instrumental in bringing the delegation to campus this summer.

Arriving Monday, July 17, the delegation met with WCU faculty, attended workshops and went on scenic tours of Western North Carolina, as well as holding two public forums on campus Thursday, July 20. The visit was coordinated by WCU’s Office of International Programs and Services, Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, and Special Education Program.

“We want to promote innovation, which is one of the reasons why we came to WCU,” said Bontle Molefe, Botswana’s acting director of special support services. “Our special education program has been in existence only since 1984, and not until 1994 have the issues of special education started to be taken more seriously. So we are advocates for all with disabilities, not just those in schools.”

The Botswana delegation, accompanied by WCU hosts, in a casual moment.

The visit gave delegates face-to-face opportunities with WCU’s experts in various special education fields.

“Karena Cooper-Duffy (WCU associate professor of special education) spoke to us about daily interactions with learners,” Molefe said. “Billy Ogletree (WCU professor of communication sciences and disorders) was talking with us about autism. Cathy Grist (associate professor and director for WCU’s Birth-Kindergarten Program) discussed multi-faceted approaches used in special education that prove effective. Their time, their patience and understanding means a great deal to us,” she said.

The challenge is for Botswana to meet special education needs with limited resources, said Rose, a hosting faculty member. That will require more teacher workshops, creation of programs and expansion of existing facilities in a country already beset with health and environmental problems in an emerging economy.

“Last summer, we took 10 WCU students for a service-learning course to Botswana and two-week adventure,” said Rose. “It went great, a mix of grad and undergrad students, presenting special workshops. They performed assessments in rehabilitation hospitals right alongside their counterparts, provided treatment and worked with teachers in special needs schools. We spent a day at the Central Resource Center, established in 1990 for the purpose of assessing children with special needs for identification and placement in centers and providing counseling to parents.”

Rose said the collaboration will foster service-learning goals at WCU and assist with a number of needs in Botswana, including developing communication tools for the deaf and methods for enhanced reading skills, and demonstrating adaptive teaching methods for special needs students.

For Montisetsi Popo, an instructor in Botswana’s Ithuteng Primary School, the ties with WCU will grow stronger, as programs increase and activities such as Special Olympics become more established. “This visit (to WCU) will make a vast difference when we return home,” he said. “We have to look at all aspects of a learner’s life, dealing with physical fitness, healthy diet, so that after special ed, they be given the opportunities as their counterparts, and be productive and give back to the community.”

The delegation continued its U.S. visit by spending a week at the Department of Public Instruction Summer Institute in Greensboro.