Children with disabilities, like all other pupils, have a right to quality basic education — now. But the consistent failure by the department of basic education to provide access to adequate schooling, or any schooling at all, to hundreds of thousands of pupils with disabilities is a major threat to their livelihood and dignity.
Between September 2014 and February 2015, at the request of the South African National Council for the Blind, the South African Braille Authority and BlindSA’s joint request, rights organisation Section27 visited 20 of the 22 special schools for visually impaired children in South Africa. We interviewed staff and pupils at these schools and asked them about what they experienced working and learning there. We left almost every school shocked by what we heard and saw. The process as a whole was enlightening, frustrating and emotionally taxing on us both. As a totally blind former pupil at Arthur Blaxall School for the Blind in Pietermaritzburg, Silomo Khumalo in particular struggled to come to terms with the conditions at schools that have, in many cases, clearly deteriorated since he matriculated in 2006.
Pupils battle to learn, for example, without Braille pupil/teacher support materials, without assistive devices and without teachers capable of reading and writing Braille. Particularly striking is that at many schools there are constant shortages of Perkins Braille machines, the most simple assistive device for blind pupils, which enables them to write in Braille. These machines are the equivalent of a pen and paper for blind people. Some pupils told us how frustrating it was to have to share these Braille machines even during exams and some teachers told us how, in the absence of Braille learning materials, children are effectively “writing their own books” on these machines.
In some ways, these are the “lucky” pupils, those who end up appropriately placed in special schools for children with visual impairments. Though statistics vary wildly, it is commonly understood that about 500 000 children with disabilities do not go to school at all. Statistics South Africa’s 2013 general household survey indicates that of the children with disabilities who do not attend school, 67% report severe disabilities and would therefore need to be placed in special schools.
In terms of the department’s 2001 inclusive education policy, the provision of schooling for moderately disabled pupils may occur in mainstream schools or full-service schools, which are specially adapted mainstream schools. For pupils with severe disabilities, this can happen in special schools. This is the government’s sole attempt at a holistic policy on the education of pupils with disabilities. It envisions an important role for special schools as “resource centres” that provide support for full-service and mainstream schools and is explicit that “special schools will be strengthened rather than abolished” to achieve this.
The problems experienced by pupils with disabilities in all schools are therefore affected by the conditions, resources and quality of education available to pupils at special schools. But getting into school is only the first hurdle children have to overcome. Once admitted to a school, they still face a myriad problems.
These are some of them:
• Pupil/teacher support materials: There is limited availability of textbooks, workbooks and teachers’ guides in accessible formats, including Braille and large print. Because of a failed tender process in 2012, no textbooks are available at all at 17 of the 22 special schools for visually impaired children. Reports indicate that out of a total of more than 600 textbooks that should make up the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (Caps) curriculum, only about 150 Braille adaptations of these books have been created. All of these books are in English and Afrikaans and have been produced at the initiative and expense of Pioneer Printers, a private printing company associated with the Pioneer School for the Blind in Worcester.
• Staff provisioning: There is a severe problem with staff shortages in respect of both teaching and essential nonteaching staff such as class assistants and “house parents” and nurses for pupils staying in hostels. Some visually impaired pupils sit in classes that have more than 20 pupils to a single teacher, without any class assistant. This is more than double the department’s own required ratio for visually impaired pupils. One school in Limpopo, for example, reports having 60 vacancies for support staff, which the Limpopo department of education says it cannot fill because it does not have the money to advertise the posts. House parents at many schools are untrained volunteers who have no knowledge or expertise in caring for visually impaired children.
• Capacity of educators: Many of the teachers at the schools for visually impaired pupils are not Braille literate in either elementary Braille or contracted Braille. Blind pupils taught by these teachers are themselves expected to achieve this level of Braille literacy by grade four. Teachers who are appointed to schools seldom have any specialist knowledge on the education of visually impaired pupils and most provincial departments of education provide no training for teachers, who are therefore forced to learn specialist skills on the job. Sporadic Braille training, undertaken by provincial departments of education at the national department’s request during 2014 and 2015, has often been inadequate. Most remarkably, in the Eastern Cape, the private company awarded a tender to give this training to teachers, Peakford, had absolutely no experience or ability in Braille teaching. The instructors sent to instruct teachers could not read or write Braille themselves.
• Orientation and mobility instruction: Blind and low-vision children require specialist assistance in learning how to navigate physical spaces such as their homes, classrooms and school premises, to complete what to sighted children may be simple tasks such as getting dressed, cooking, cleaning, making phone calls, using computers, catching taxis and identifying money, and in developing skills to interact with new, unfamiliar social environments. An orientation and mobility practitioner, a specialist occupation, is required at each school to ensure that pupils with visual impairments can succeed in attaining these crucial development skills. Most schools do not have access to any of these instructors and pupils therefore learn to find their way around by “bumping and falling”.
As a result, some pupils cannot even find their own way to the school gate successfully after spending several years at the same school. Many of the problems experienced by schools for pupils with visual impairments, just as in other special schools, are the result of systemic failures within the provincial and national departments of education and are therefore symptoms of bigger structural problems. These problems include a lack of clear policy guidance for educators, a failure to implement the white paper, a general lack of expertise within the departments of education about teaching pupils with disabilities, and a failure to budget adequately for this purpose.
The circumstances faced by children with disabilities in accessing education are a national shame. Visiting the schools and talking to pupils and staff reveals that despite these awful circumstances, some visually impaired children still manage to excel in their studies thanks to the valiant efforts of teachers. These children are an inspiration, but they should not be an exception. Many children and teachers express anger and sadness to us that most visually impaired pupils are not afforded an equal opportunity to receive an education in South Africa.
A 17-year-old pupil, who is totally blind and attends a special school for the visually impaired, sums the current situation up well when asked if he believes that his schooling has prepared him for the future. He said: “Reality says no, but I remain hopeful.” Unless remedial action is taken urgently by the education authorities, his hope — and the hopes other children with disabilities — may tragically remain far from reality.
Tim Fish Hodgson and Silomo Khumalo work at rights organisation Section27. Hodgson is a legal researcher and Khumalo is a Students for Law and Social Justice research fellow