South African schools exclude about 500,000 children with disabilities says report

Qinisela is an eight-year-old boy who has never been to school. He has Down Syndrome and his mother Thandi has tried to get him into a mainstream school and a special school.

Thandi, from Kwa-Ngwanase in South Africa, said: “We tried to put him in a school but they said they couldn’t put him in that school because he has disabilities. The school said that he was naughty. He isn’t like other children so they said they can’t teach him.

“At the therapy they promised to phone if there’s a space in a special school. I’ve been waiting since last year.”

Qinisela is just one of about 500,000 children with disabilities who are being excluded from South Africa’s education system, according to a report published today by Human Rights Watch. That is despite the government claiming it has met the United Nations Millennium Development goal of enrolling all children into primary school by 2015. 

The investigation discovered that the right to education was not guaranteed to all children – because of widespread discrimination against those with disabilities during the enrolment process.

The 94-page report – titled Complicit in Exclusion – was launched at a joint event with the South African Human Rights Commission.

Its author, Human Rights Watch children’s rights researcher Elin Martínez, said: “The South African government needs to admit that it is not providing quality education to all of its children – in fact, no schooling at all to many who have disabilities. The job is not done until all children count just the same in the education system.”

Research in five of the country’s nine provinces showed that children are often turned away from mainstream schools and referred to special schools simply because they have a disability. This system forces many to wait for up to four years for placement in a special school.

Source: Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch also found that children with disabilities who attend special schools often must pay fees that children without disabilities do not. In some cases, parents are unable to send their child to school because they cannot pay these fees and transportation costs to schools far from their homes.

There is also a lack of understanding of children’s disabilities and poor teacher training. This can result in physical violence and neglect in schools.

The report said the government should:

  • Ensure all children and young adults with disabilities have access to equal opportunities to learn and benefit from a quality education
  • Adopt a new policy and legislation to require all provincial governments and schools to ensure that all learners with disabilities can complete basic education and are given an equal opportunity to go to mainstream schools that are accessible and free of violence
  • Ensure all children with disabilities and their families are adequately consulted before making decisions on a school placement
  • Remove school fees and other financial barriers that prevent children with disabilities from going to school

Ms Martinez added: “The current system is ad hoc and expensive, and isolates children with disabilities from other learners. As a result, the government is failing hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities, violating its own policies and laws.”

Since 2001, South African government policy has been to end the exclusion of children with disabilities from schools and to provide education for all children in inclusive schools. And in 2007 it ratified the UN Disability Rights treaty which says countries must have an inclusive education system. But Human Rights Watch said fundamental aspects of inclusive education policy had not yet been put in place.

The UN has said that South Africa “can now be recognised as having attained near universal access” to education – but added that much more needed to be done to improve its quality.

There is no widely-accepted figure for the number of children with disabilities who are out of school around the world. The Global Partnership for Educations says: “In most developing countries, there is little relevant data to identify the number of disabled children.” The World Report on Disability says: “Estimates for the number of children (0-14) living with disabilities range between 93 million and 150 million. It adds: “In general, children with disabilities are less likely to start school and have lower rates of staying and being promoted in school.”