Today is the third day of the new school year in South Africa. All schools across the country have begun to “open their doors of learning,” according to South Africa’s Department of Basic Education.

But, are all the schools open to all learners? Will we see a meaningful increase in enrollment of learners with disabilities in mainstream schools in this new academic year?

Enelani, an 8-year-old boy with Down Syndrome from a village near Tzaneen, Limpopo province, shows off two medals awarded at a sports competition. 

© 2014 Elin Martínez/Human Rights Watch

 

Last year, Human Rights Watch documented many cases of exclusion and discrimination faced by children and youth with disabilities who tried to enroll in mainstream schools and were turned down or referred to special schools. As a response, the government committed to doing its utmost to ensure all children with disabilities enjoy their right to education. On the International Day of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Minister of Basic Education said: “Let us now all join hands to focus on what needs to be done to ensure that every child with a disability of compulsory school-going age is enrolled in a registered education programme and/or school, and has full access to the learning process through access to reasonable accommodation and support.”

To act on this commitment, the government could - and should - take one immediate step to ensure school doors are not just open but also accessible to all children.

The national and provincial Departments of Basic Education should remind schools across the country, through official national and provincial channels published in the next few days, that children with disabilities cannot be turned down in admissions processes. Schools should be reminded of their obligation to ensure children with disabilities have the right to access the same education services as any other children. When children with disabilities need additional learning support, schools should provide it within their classroom and school and avoid the pervasive and unnecessary habit of referring many children with disabilities to special schools.

Let this year be the year where the government shows the doors are really open to everyone.