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Children with Disabilities in South Africa Cannot Wait

Government Should Make Education Free for All

A group of courageous moms of children with disabilities in Johannesburg has seized the run-up to International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3 to launch a petition that calls upon South Africa’s Department of Basic Education to remove school fees for children with disabilities. Their goal is that their children can, “enjoy the right to an inclusive fee-free basic education.”

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

In South Africa, the overwhelming majority of children enjoy their constitutional right to free education. But children with disabilities still face discriminatory barriers to free education.

Children with disabilities should be guaranteed equality in the entire process of their education, including by having meaningful choices and opportunities to be accommodated in free, non-fee paying, mainstream school.

To date, too many children with disabilities have to pay school fees because they are needlessly referred to public special schools. But even children with disabilities who attend mainstream schools are sometimes forced to pay for that access.

Many, if not most, parents of children with disabilities cannot afford fees for their children to access school, or even pay for transport to get to schools that are often far away.

Our 2015 research found that special schools are not part of the government’s “no fee schools” list. Schools on the no fee list accommodate children from low-income backgrounds – the bulk of South Africa’s students. It is not clear why public special schools, which similarly cater to children with disabilities from predominantly low-income backgrounds, are not on the list.

The Department for Basic Education’s most senior official recently stated in parliament: “It is time for special schools to be declared no fee schools and the Department needs to make it a priority.”

This is welcome news. The government now needs to put words into action, and scrap school fees and additional costs for all children with disabilities, so that in practice they can access education on an equal basis with children without disabilities. It should also fulfil its policy of inclusive education by making sure that children with disabilities can access mainstream schools that are accessible, free, and fully inclusive.

Children with disabilities cannot wait any longer for inclusive education.

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