Under the South African Constitution, every child, without exception, has the right to an equal and inclusive education. Sadly this is not the case for most children with disabilities who are discriminated against by not having transport to school, structural accessibility to classrooms or toilets, or access to adequate personnel support at school.
It is the responsibility of the Department of Basic Education to ensure inclusivity and equal access for all our South African children. However, it is truly failing in the implementation of its own policy of inclusive education. An inclusive education means that children with disabilities receive an education along with their able-bodied peers.
An inclusive and equal education implies that the school will implement the necessary adaptations to the curriculum, learning materials and teaching methodologies to cater for the disability-specific needs of the learners. It also requires structural accessibility of the school and all its facilities.
A recent case brought about by the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD) involved a learner with a mild form of cerebral palsy who uses a walker. Unfortunately, his classroom is on the second floor, which makes it impossible for him to reach, while the closest accessible toilets are too far to reach comfortably. This is a prime example of a child whose future has been compromised.
“In fact, Human Rights Watch and even the Department of Basic Education itself note that at least 500 000 children with disabilities are not attending school – a shocking figure indeed,” says André Kalis, specialist in advocacy, policy and children’s matters at the NCPD. Not having access to a formal education has devastating implications for a child. These learners are basically robbed of their future, relegated to a life marked by poverty and dependence on others.
“Furthermore, this lack of access goes against the Department of Basic Education’s own framework policy,” says Kalis. With the issuing of White Paper 6 in 2001, the Department of Education stated that learners requiring a low level of support, such as the above-mentioned learner, would attend mainstream schools in order to maximise their personal growth and promote inclusion in society.
A lack of helpers
For learners with more severe disabilities, there are of course schools that accommodate them by providing high-level support in the form of adequate and specialised personnel. But here the NCPD encounters yet another problem that relates to understaffing. An example occurs at a school for people with physical, visual and hearing disabilities in the Northern Cape.
“There are only two helpers for the 33 learners residing in the hostel, meaning that the learners’ needs are not properly attended to,” says Kalis. “This is another problem that can be attributed to the Department of Basic Education and is further impacted by the Department of Health’s inability to provide assistive devices such as wheelchairs, hearing aids and even nappies.”
In addition, the Department of Basic Education often fails to provide children with disabilities with transportation to and from schools. It is important to remember that these children cannot make use of public transport, since assistive devices such as wheelchairs are not catered for. It is unfortunately yet another way that learners are sidelined during their formative years.
Slow progress on own policy
The NCPD has brought a complaint against the Department of Basic Education before, pointing out the unacceptably slow progress being made on the department’s own policy of Screening, Identification, Assessment and Support (SIAS).
Meant to manage and assist teaching and learning processes of those with barriers to learning, the SIAS policy is mandated to provide support teams at schools to ensure that children with disabilities have equal access to education.
These teams are supposed to assess the curriculum and teachers’ capabilities in working with learners with disabilities and dealing with how the learning material has to be adapted to the learners’ needs. The SIAS policy also looks at what additional support the learners require, such as a teacher’s assistant.
“In theory, the SIAS policy is highly commendable and was well received. However, in practice, the department’s implementation is severely lacking, leading to many learners not being assessed at all, while all of the out-of-school children with disabilities are left out in the cold as far as SIAS is concerned,” says Kalis.
The South African Schools Act makes it compulsory for all seven-to-16-year-olds to be enrolled in a registered education programme. “This is why the Department of Basic Education must cater for those learners with disabilities in the educational space. By not doing so, it is breaking the law. The NCPD will continue to pressurise the department to force this matter,” Kalis concludes.