Johannesburg – South Africa’s Parliament should urgently address the crisis in inclusive education affecting children with disabilities, Inclusive Education South Africa, SECTION27, Human Rights Watch, and the Dullah Omar Institute, University of the Western Cape, said today. The groups were responding to President Jacob Zuma’s statement at the national Disability Rights Summit on March 10, 2016, and statements by the Department of Basic Education on March 8.

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. 

“The 600,000 children with disabilities in South Africa who remain out of school are indeed being left behind,” said Robyn Beere of Inclusive Education South Africa, recalling Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s “No child left behind” theme and quoting the statistics the department presented to a parliamentary committee on March 8. “Meeting President Zuma’s target of ensuring that all children are in appropriate schools by 2021 will require a serious increase in resource allocation and a redoubling of efforts from provincial and national departments of education.”

In addressing the Disability Rights Summit on March 10, President Zuma said: “Our goal as government is to ensure that by 2021, no children with disabilities will be out of school. They should all be able to attend their local neighboring schools and receive the necessary support.”

Two days earlier, South African and international organizations presented key evidence to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Basic Education, pointing out the realities faced by many children with disabilities across the country, including persistent discrimination against children with disabilities in the education system. The government’s inaction on inclusive education is keeping many children with disabilities out of school.

Civil society representatives urged the Portfolio Committee to exercise its legislative and oversight functions to speed up the process of implementing Education White Paper 6 (WP6), the government’s policy on inclusive education. All organizations represented there delivered an unequivocal message that national and provincial departments should be held accountable to the children of South Africa, whose dreams of an education fade under a poorly implemented inclusive education system.

The committee heard evidence that children with disabilities are excluded and discriminated against in many schools around the country. Human Rights Watch research shows that the government has not addressed the many failures that keep very large numbers of children with disabilities out of school.

“Our research shows that enrollment decisions in ordinary schools mean that children with disabilities are not able to enter school at the appropriate age, even though education is both compulsory and their right,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “And we found that schools fail their obligations to allow children with disabilities to enroll in regular public schools.”

SECTION27 presented its report, Left in the Dark, which outlines the extremely poor conditions in South Africa’s 22 public special schools for visually impaired learners.

Decrying the current state of education uncovered by SECTION27’s report, former Constitutional Court Justice Zak Yacoob, who attended one of these special schools, said, “I am pained to say that if the facilities at the school at which I was a pupil had been as paltry as in most of the schools described in the report, I would never even have completed school successfully.”

SECTION27’s investigation shows numerous failures in special schools for visually impaired learners. Among others, the inadequate provision of textbooks in Braille; shortages of Braille machines, which one teacher described as “pen and paper” for blind children; lack of orientation and mobility training at schools; and inadequate ability to read, write, and teach braille on the part of many teachers teaching blind and partially sighted learners. The department’s own progress report acknowledges that in 2014 there were nearly 600 teachers at schools for visually impaired learners who could not read or write braille at the level expected of a grade 4 learner. SECTION27’s report confirms that this problem continues.

SECTION27 outlined a clear need for orientation and mobility practitioners, including training on navigating physical space and performing daily tasks like catching taxis and finding one’s way around using a “white cane.” “Learners presently find their way around by bumping and falling and many who are too timid merely stay in one place,” said Silomo Khumalo, a researcher at SECTION27.  “This is an infringement of learners’ dignity.”

SECTION27 called for an urgent task team to be formed to facilitate the production and funding of braille textbooks. “Braille workbooks alone are not enough,” Khumalo said. “Learners who need braille machines to read and write must be provided with them and they must be well maintained by the department.”

In the President’s remarks on March 10 at the Disability Summit he acknowledged the importance of promoting access to Braille and said that the “Cabinet has directed that the establishment of a government braille printing works be accelerated.”

“It is important for the Department of Basic Education to urgently provide information on how the Cabinet’s direction will impact on the production of braille textbooks,” Khumalo said. “Visually impaired children want to know when they will receive their books just like all other children.”

All parties at the meeting recognized that the Department of Basic Education’s Inclusive Education Directorate has worked hard and made progress to improve access to inclusive education in South Africa. Inclusive Education South Africa stated that this remains an isolated aspect of the department’s work and it will be impossible to realize the government’s inclusive education goals without integrating the responsibility for meeting them into each of the department’s sections. The committee should examine progress in the context of the wide range of barriers to learning experienced by over 50 percent of South Africa’s diverse learner population, the organizations said.

“A single response is not enough,” Beere said. “Strategies to realize the right to education for all require a range of solutions, from training teachers effectively, to making school infrastructure accessible, to adapting curriculum and providing accessible textbooks.”

“The department presented a generalized and at times defensive response to the situation, offering broad commitments to funding norms and task teams in the coming months and years, but largely making excuses for the failures to date, said Samantha Waterhouse, of the Dullah Omar Institute at the University of the Western Cape and a co-chair of the Campaign to Promote the Right to Education of Children with Disabilities. “Of concern is that the committee appeared satisfied with those generalizations, somewhat immune to the urgency of the situation and even reluctant to call the department to account for its dismal performance on inclusive education over the past 15 years since WP6 was adopted.”

Following the meeting, the department released a statement about the meeting, praising its own achievements. The statement correctly noted the positive statements made by groups at the meeting, but lacked crucial details about how it would meet the challenges presented to the committee.

“We do acknowledge the progress that has been achieved,” Khumalo said. “However, we measure the department’s success by the standard set by the constitutionally entrenched right to basic education and children with disabilities’ right to equality. This right applies to all children, including children with disabilities, right now! The significant challenges that plague the education system are not a reason to say that this group of children must wait, it’s morally and legally intolerable.”