Dreaming of true rainbow-nation classrooms

Inclusive education was on the agenda for the delegates of the annual Disability Rights Conference held in Pretoria in November. MARISKA MORRIS attended.

The Centre for Human Rights, located within the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria, in partnership with Open Society Foundation, hosted its annual Disability Rights Conference from November 6 to 7 at the Saint George Hotel in Pretoria. The event brings together various specialists, researchers and organisations to discuss the rights of people with disabilities.

This year, the focus was on providing quality, inclusive education to children with disabilities. In his welcoming address, André Boraine, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria, noted: “Education is seen as a fundamental human right. Barriers to education often lead to barriers to economic opportunity.”

Frans Viljoen, director of the Centre for Human Rights, said: “People talk about inclusive education, but what does it mean? The challenges are in the details.” This sentiment was echoed by many of the speakers, who pointed to some practical barriers that prevent inclusive education.

Inclusive education would, theoretically, allow children with disabilities to attend mainstream schools in the same class as their peers without physical disabilities. The concept would remove the need for special schools or classes.

CBM education advisor and lecturer at the University of the Western Cape Emma McKinney discussed some of the challenges of implementing inclusive education in southern Africa.

“Barriers take the form not only of getting into school, but also remaining in school. A barrier could be the stigma attached to children with disabilities, the lack of appropriate assistive devices and infrastructure, or a lack of access to water or food,” she said.

She argued that it was important for the entire staff at a school to be trained in assisting children with disabilities rather than using “cascade training” (train the trainer), which is often the case. It is also important to educate the parents on the value of educating their child with a disability and working with the elders, who are often gatekeepers in their communities.

Fatma Wangare, from Inclusive Africa, suggested that the curriculum and standardised testing models should be adapted. As she noted: “Not all children learn the same. At the moment, children with disabilities are told not to attend examinations or are not marked.”

Even in areas where children attend schools for free, Wangare said that parents often struggle to afford the additional costs of stationery, uniforms or even transport. Inclusive education would need to provide the children with services to overcome these barriers.

Els Heijnen, former senior education advisor at Save the Children Uganda, noted that inclusive education should not be a separate programme, but should be an integral part of a country’s educational policies.

Allan Tumbo and Omolara Akintoye, researcher advisers at the South African Human Rights Commission, shared their findings on how South Africa could design and implement an Afrocentric Universal Design for Learning (UDL) system.

UDL suggests that all children of all races, abilities, backgrounds and class are taught in the same class at their own pace. Teachers will need to give more personal attention to each child and be able to teach in every language to children of all abilities.

Akintoye noted: “The curriculum, along with the classroom space, should be as flexible as possible. UDL will help all children including children with a language barrier.” Socialising children with or without disabilities from an early age will give both the necessary social skills and make disability a norm for all children rather than something that most children only encounter later in their lives.

Tumbo pointed out that the current ratio of teachers to children is problematic. In special schools the ratio is 1:30 rather than the suggested 1:15. Public school classes are generally around 40 students or more per class.

There’s a long struggle ahead before fully inclusive education is a reality in South Africa, but there’s something to cheer about: steps are being taken towards educating society on what inclusive education entails and why it is important.

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