[24 August 2015] - An estimated 500,000 children with disabilities are not enrolled in South Africa’s educational system, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) published last week.
The findings reflect a global trend. Children with disabilities continue to be left out of school even as some countries assert that they have met the millennium development goal (MDG) to grant every child access to primary education.
“Although the government claims it has achieved the MDG of enrolling all children in primary schools by 2015, HRW found that in reality, across South Africa, many children with disabilities are not in school,” the report said.
The second MDG, which targeted universal primary education by 2015, will not be met, largely because of poor progress in sub-Saharan Africa. Problems related to getting disabled children into the school system are also thought to be behind the failure.
“Many, if not most, of disabled children are not enrolled in schools in developing countries,” said Hannah Kuper, co-director of the International Centre for Evidence in Disability at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
South Africa, the continent’s second-biggest economy after Nigeria, with more resources to educate disabled children than many other countries, has been lauded in the past for its commitment to improve access to education for disabled children.
In 2007, it was one of the first countries to ratify the UN’s disability rights convention and in 2001 it unveiled policies to end the exclusion of disabled children from schools.
Angie Motshekga, South Africa’s minister for basic education, said in May that the country had met the MDG. The UN has said: “South Africa has in effect achieved the goal of universal primary education before the year 2015, and its education system can now be recognised as having attained near universal access.”
But HRW questions this claim. It reports that the country’s schools practise widespread discrimination against children with disabilities in enrolment decisions.
“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,” said Elin Martínez, HRW’s children’s rights researcher and author of the report.
Qinisela, a South African mother of an eight-year-old boy with Down’s syndrome who lives in Kwa-Ngwanase, KwaZulu-Natal, told HRW researchers: “We tried to put him in a [mainstream] school but they said they couldn’t put him in that school because he has disabilities … because of Down’s syndrome 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.”
The HRW report is based on interviews with 70 parents like Qinisela about their experience getting their children and young adults educated. Researchers visited Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northern Cape and Western Cape provinces in October and November last year.
HRW said a lack of proper accommodation in school, discriminatory fees and expenses, violence, abuse and neglect in schools, lack of quality education and poor teacher training and awareness hindered access to education.
These concerns are echoed by Kuper, who said that many schools in the developing world are not equipped to teach disabled children, and stigma against those with learning difficulties pervades many societies.
Poor data on the enrolment of disabled children is a problem for many countries, said Kuper. “The first thing that we need is more data in order to know how to enrol children with disabilities in school.
We need to know which children are most excluded and why, in order to see how to overcome these barriers. And we need to know what works best to address the needs of disabled children when they are in school, so that they can have the best education possible.”
Data collected in 2012 by Plan International, a children’s rights NGO, is one of the few datasets that shows the scale of the problem of getting disabled children into schools in the developing world. “There isn’t any better data that I know,” said Kuper.
The sustainable development goals (SDGs), which come into effect next year, have several provisions to improve the lives of people with disabilities, including targets to educate all disabled children and to find more jobs for disabled adults.
Jo Bourne, chief of education at Unicef, the UN’s children’s agency, added, “Despite recent progress, there are still some 59 million primary-age children and 65 million adolescents out of school – often children living in poverty, girls, children with disabilities, children from ethnic minorities, children living in conflict or those engaged in child labour.
These children and young people are among the most disadvantaged citizens from across the developing world and are not only excluded from the opportunity of education and learning for their own individual development, they are missing out on the opportunity to contribute to their communities and economies when they reach adulthood.”