500,000 disabled students edged out of South African schools, report shows

Student works with teacher at the Mary Kihn School for Partially Hearing Children, in Cape Town, South Africa. (credit: WycliffeSA/flickr)

While South African government officials crow about their success in meeting the Millennium Development Goal of universal access to primary education, more than a half million disabled children are shut out and receive no education, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

“The current system is ad hoc and expensive, and isolates children with disabilities from other learners,” said Elin Martínez, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, and author of Complicit in Exclusion: South Africa’s Failure to Guarantee Inclusive Education for Children with Disabilities. “As a result, the government is failing hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities, violating its own policies and laws.”

Among the findings: schools flat-out reject certain disabilities; schools say they can’t accommodate disabilities; schools charge higher fees to accommodate disabilities; students are abused; and overall education is poor. As a result, children can’t access vital skills that would help them find education and jobs as they get older.

Martìnez and her team interviewed 135 people across five of South Africa’s nine provinces. A woman named Thandi, from Kwa-Ngwanase, told interviewers that her 8-year-old son Qinisela is not in school because the local school cannot accommodate him. Her story is similar to others in the report – schools will not take children with Down syndrome because of behavioral issues.

“We tried to put him in a [mainstream]school but they said they couldn’t put him in that school because he has disabilities. The school said that he was naughty,” Thandi said in the report. “Because of Down syndrome he isn’t like other children so they [said they]can’t teach him. At the therapy they promised to phone if there’s a space in a special school. I’ve been waiting since last year.”

These findings fly in the face of legislation that enshrined universal access to primary education that passed shortly after the end of apartheid.The 2001 Education White Paper 6 sought complete inclusion in 20 years. Its goal included 280,000 children with disabilities.

Human Rights Watch argues that the good policy did not translate into meaningful action, and that the government, while claiming success, is failing half a million children.

“At around 99 percent, we have universal primary education, gender equity and universal access to schooling, including going out of our way to solicit development programs,” said South Africa’s Education Minister Angie Motshekga, in a May speech.

Estimates from Human Rights Watch show that the problem worsened in the past 15 years or the government grossly underestimated the size of the problem. Urgent action is needed, according to the report, to ensure that children like Sandile, a 10-year-old boy who is deaf and has partial sight, are in school.

“The South African government needs to admit that it is not providing quality education to all of its children – in fact, no schooling at all to many who have disabilities,” said Martìnez. “The job is not done until all children count just the same in the education system.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.