This month marks the start of a new school year in South Africa, but many children with disabilities won’t be attending class with their peers. Parents have been told that their children cannot go to mainstream schools, but at the same time many have been told their children will have to wait for a place to come up at a school that provides specialized services. The education of many of these children is left at the mercy of a complex referral system that needlessly results in children with disabilities spending up to four years at care centers or at home while they wait for a place in a special school.

Rito, 8, lives in Diepsloot, Gauteng Province.

© 2016 Afrika Tikkun

Rito, who is eight and has yet to attend school, had to travel more than 350 kilometers from his home province of Limpopo to Diepsloot, a township outside Johannesburg, to look for a school place. In a letter, his mother Saliphina explained: “[the]… school [in] Limpopo said they cannot admit him because he is not fit for that school and they cannot admit disable[d] persons anymore. He needs to go to school but [we] cannot find …one in Limpopo.” Rito is still waiting for a school place to become free.

Discrimination and exclusion affects hundreds of thousands of children and adolescents with disabilities in South Africa, who are denied their right to inclusive education. In October 2016, an expert United Nations body, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, expressed concern at the large number of children with disabilities in the country who are not in school or studying in special schools, as well as discrimination, violence, and neglect they are subjected to by teachers and other students, and the low quality of education they receive. The UN committee urged the government to ensure free, compulsory education is provided for all children with disabilities within mainstream schools, and to give them the support they need to learn on an equal basis.

In this new school year, the government should move from the rhetoric of inclusion to direct action in schools. Provincial governments should actively monitor what is happening in individual schools and act on complaints when schools turn away students with disabilities. They should also ensure mainstream schools are properly resourced to provide adequate support, so that children with disabilities can enroll in inclusive schools. Finally, the minister of basic education and all provincial education ministers should also be required to report how many children with disabilities actually enroll in South African schools in 2017, and how many – like Rito – are still out of class.