/ 12 February 2020

South Africa treats special needs children as an aside

Sibabalwe Mkunqwana was amongst the top 30 matric achievers in 2019.

There is something unsettling and inhumane about how the people running this country treat children with special needs.

These children are forcefully erased from society and dumped somewhere where no one can find them.

It’s terrible. And it’s disheartening.

Just last month, South Africa celebrated the 30 top achievers in the 2019 matric results — among them were learners with special needs.

One of those was the brilliant Sibabalwe Mkunqwana, who lives with severe athetoid cerebral palsy and started school only when she was 10 years old.

For the better part of her schooling, she used her chin to type; for months in high school she was not provided with a teacher’s aide, even though she needed one to assist her.

Despite all these hardships she persisted and was paraded on television as a top performer.

But there are many more Sibabalwes out there whose brilliance we never get to know about.

Why not?

It is because they have not been given a chance to receive an education.

In 2015 I wrote a story about children with special needs from Orange Farm, south of Johannesburg, who had never seen the inside of a classroom because there were no special-needs schools in their area.

I interviewed the family of a 15-year-old girl with a mental illness who could not read or write because she had never been to school.

But the luck of some of these children changed when Gauteng MEC for education Panyaza Lesufi opened several special-needs schools in the province, including in Orange Farm.

I belong to a network of parents who have children with autism. And every day there is a story from a parent who is struggling to find a school for their child. The parents who seem to suffer the most are not from Gauteng. It is a serious battle: these parents contemplate moving to Gauteng to get their children into special-needs schools; those who have the means opt for private schools. If you cannot relocate or afford a private school, then your child has to stay at home.

In 2017 I wrote another story about a group of children with special needs from rural Daggakraal in Mpumalanga, who were not attending school because there were no schools for them in the area.

There was a 17-year-old boy with a mental illness and physical disability, who had never been to school. He roamed the streets and was called “mad” by his peers. I spoke to a 14-year-old, who also suffered from a mental illness, and had also never seen the inside of a classroom. In addition, there were younger children with autism and cerebral palsy who were not attending school.

The provincial education department spokesperson told me that the province could not have a special-needs school in every area.

But huge challenges remain, even for those children who do manage to get into special-needs schools.

Last week, Northern Cape-based parents of children with special-needs reached their wits’ end with the provincial department of education, which was failing to provide learners with reliable scholar transport. The learners share a bus with the department and if the department needs to use the bus then the learners cannot attend school.

The portfolio committee on basic education visited special-needs schools in Limpopo last week and was outraged by the conditions of the schools and hostel facilities. In one school — the community heard — parents bought a bus to transport their children to school because there is no scholar transport.

There are generally a whole host of problems affecting the basic education sector, but special-needs education appears to be at the bottom of the list of priorities of this government.

Some parents have to quit their jobs to look after their children because there are no schools for them. Others have to uproot their families and relocate to different provinces just to access special-needs schools.

It is a travesty how children with special needs are being treated in this country. There are no more than 500 special-needs schools in the entire country. No one is planning for children with special needs. It is as if there are no women in this country giving birth to children with special needs.

These children are treated as “by the way” and as if they are being done a favour by being provided with an education, even though it is their constitutional right.

This needs to change, and fast