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Update: On August 18, 2015, the Department of Basic Education issued a media release responding to Human Rights Watch's report. Our response can be found here.


(Johannesburg) – An estimated half-a-million children with disabilities have been shut out of South Africa’s education system, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today at a joint event with South Africa’s Human Rights Commission.

Two children sit on chairs in the New Covenant day care center, a center set-up and led by parents in Orange Farm township, Johannesburg, to cater to children with disabilities who are not admitted in the township’s mainstream schools © 2015 Diane McCarthy/Human Rights Watch

The 94-page report, “‘Complicit in Exclusion’: South Africa’s Failure to Guarantee Inclusive Education for Children with Disabilities,” found that South Africa has failed to guarantee the right to education for many of the country’s children and young adults due to widespread discrimination against children with disabilities in enrollment decisions. Human Rights Watch research in five out of South Africa’s nine provinces showed that children with disabilities face discriminatory physical and attitudinal barriers, often beginning early in children’s lives when government officials classify them according to their disabilities.

“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 Elin Martínez, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, and author of the report. “The job is not done until all children count just the same in the education system.”


Although the government claims it has achieved the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of enrolling all children in primary schools by 2015, Human Rights Watch found that in reality across South Africa, many children with disabilities are not 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. The job is not done until all children count just the same in the education system.”
Elin Martínez

Children’s rights researcher

In 2007, South Africa was one of the first countries to ratify the UN Disability Rights Treaty, which requires the government to promote an inclusive education system. Such systems are designed to ensure that all children learn together and acquire the same skills on an equal basis, that barriers to learning are removed, and that children with disabilities get adequate support to prevent them from falling behind.

The government has had a policy since 2001 to end the exclusion of children with disabilities from the country’s schools and to provide education for all children in inclusive schools. But the government has not yet put into operation fundamental aspects of the policy. Among other things, the government uses the majority of its already limited resources for learners with disabilities for special schools, to the detriment of inclusive education.

Contrary to the government’s international and national obligations, many children are turned away from mainstream schools and referred to special schools by school officials or medical staff simply because they have a disability. The referrals system needlessly forces children to wait for up to four years at care centers or at home for placement in a special school.

A lack of understanding of children’s disabilities and a lack of adequate teacher training means that many teachers and school officials do not know how to work with children with disabilities in classrooms, Human Rights Watch found. In some cases, children suffered physical violence and neglect in schools.

“We tried to put him in a [mainstream] school but they said they couldn’t put him in that school because he has disabilities … because of Down’s 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,” said Qinisela, the mother of an 8-year-old boy with Down’s syndrome who lives in Kwa-Ngwanase, KwaZulu-Natal, interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

Children with disabilities enter the system much later on average than children without disabilities, and often drop out or finish school without successfully completing basic education due to the poor quality of education at many mainstream and special schools. Many adolescents with disabilities lack basic life skills that should be taught in school. Human Rights Watch met young adults with disabilities who reached the end of compulsory education without being ready to move into employment or further education. Those who have not finished basic education are not always able to participate in adult basic education programs.

Human Rights Watch also found that children with disabilities who attend special schools often must pay fees that children without disabilities do not. In some cases, parents are unable to send their child to school because they cannot pay these fees and transportation costs to schools far from their homes.

The government should ensure that all children and young adults with disabilities have access to equal opportunities to learn and benefit from a quality education, Human Rights Watch said. With various government agencies disagreeing on the scope of the problem, the government should start by collecting accurate figures on how many children with disabilities remain out of school.

The government should adopt a new policy and legislation to require all provincial governments and schools to ensure that all learners with disabilities can complete basic education, and that they are given an equal opportunity to go to mainstream schools that are accessible and free of violence, Human Rights Watch said.

The government should also ensure that all children with disabilities and their families are adequately consulted before making decisions on a school placement. To comply with its international obligations, the government should remove school fees and other financial barriers that prevent children with disabilities from going to school.

“The current system is ad hoc and expensive, and isolates children with disabilities from other learners,” Martínez said. “As a result, the government is failing hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities, violating its own policies and laws.”

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