The DBE estimates that in February 2018, approximately 590 000 children with disabilities had no school to go to. The bulk of these learners had been on waiting lists for special schools for up to five years, and most of them will likely continue to wait. There are records of children as old as 14, who have never attended school. The DBE also estimates that about 120 000 of children with disabilities in the country who do attend school, do so at special schools. This is no small number and raises several concerns about the general attitude that the DBE has when it comes to children with disabilities. 

The main contributor to the above, is that the DBE has not taken the necessary steps to ensure that mainstream schools can accommodate children with disabilities. Any such accommodation must not only be done but done effectively, by way of hiring qualified staff, as well as acquisition of the necessary infrastructure. This could include specially-qualified teachers and physiotherapists, to making reading material available in braille. However, because schools have a certain degree of autonomy, they can decide that they do not or cannot accommodate learners with disabilities. This practice is exclusionary and detrimental to the development of children with disabilities. In addition, accommodation often carries financial implications and because disability manifests in various ways, it becomes even more costly to cater for children at all levels on the spectrum. 

It is worth noting that while education in public schools is free, children with disabilities who attend public special schools are required to pay fees. Often, those who attend mainstream schools pay for their own class aides as a condition for admission. In addition, at mainstream schools, most children with disabilities do not have access to the same curriculum as children without disabilities. This means that they progress at a different pace from their peers, affecting their lives going forward. 

In September 2017, there were only 725 public schools accepting learners with disabilities. This amounts to less than 3% of schools countrywide. The first problem with this is the resultant lack of capacity to cater for learners with disabilities. The other is that because the schools are few and far between, not all children are able to attend them, particularly in poorer and rural areas. 

The right to education is protected by section 29 of the Constitution. Unlike other socio-economic rights, which give the State the qualifier of “within available resources” and “progressive realisation” to justify failure to fulfil its mandate, the right to basic education is without qualifier. This means that the State MUST go above and beyond to ensure that every child has access to education. This right is not reserved for a particular group of children but must be extended to ALL children, regardless of race, social origin or disability. Further, the Constitution requires that in all matters concerning the child, the best interests of said child are of paramount importance. When it comes to persons with disabilities, inclusion is vital.  In order to enable inclusion in society at corporate or any other level, equitable and equal access at basic education level is vital. 

In addition to its own domestic laws and policies, South Africa is party to numerous international conventions, which proscribe discrimination and oblige the State to remove any barriers to the realisation of human rights. These include but are not limited to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Although the DBE has implemented modest measures, they are simply not enough to offset the obstacles faced by children with disabilities. The DBE has attempted to remedy the lack of accurate data on children with disabilities, as well as ensuring that these children receive the necessary support. One measure implemented in this regard is the Screening, Identification, Assessment, and Support (SIAS) policy. This policy was designed to provide a framework for the standardisation of the procedures to identify, assess and provide programmes for all learners who require additional support to enhance their participation and inclusion in schools. 

South Africa has a long way to go in terms of inclusionary practices for vulnerable groups such as children with disabilities. It is no wonder that with a track record as dismal as this, persons with disabilities are extremely underrepresented in the workplace, and indeed in all aspects of society. The DBE’s slogan is “No child left behind”, yet with the increasing number of children with disabilities left without a fair chance at an education, far too many children are falling through the cracks and are indeed, left behind.

*Read more about the state of the right to education, children’s rights and equality in South Africa in the Centre for Constitutional Rights’ annual publication – The Human Rights Report Card.

By Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Assistant, Centre for Constitutional Rights
15 June 2018