We fail children living with disabilities

COMMENT

Special care centres provide a place of learning, care and support for just over 11 000 schoolchildren with severe to profound intellectual disability nationally. These learners are refused admission at public schools. Many of these special care centres are in private homes, RDP houses and shacks. Some are in purpose-built facilities. They are nongovernmental organisation and, in the Western Cape, many are funded by the department of social development and the department of health. 

The absence of funding and adequate support from the education departments, both nationally and provincially, perpetuates a situation that denies the human rights model of disability.

“The ensuing discussions under the theme No Child Left Behind signify government’s commitment to ensuring that the constitutional right to basic education is realised for all children, including those with disabilities.” These were the opening remarks of the minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, at a roundtable discussion on education for children with disabilities that took place on November 23 2015. 

Motshekga further acknowledged that learners with severe to profound disabilities are “at risk of compound marginalisation” and concluded that “… in every settlement in South Africa, rural, periurban and urban, there are children with disabilities who remain excluded from education. Let us focus on this, and not just on how many they are … one child excluded is one child too many.”

The roundtable was part of the department of basic education’s response to a court order brought by the Western Cape Forum for Intellectual Disability on behalf of its special care centre members. 


Exclusion of learners at special care centres is a violation of the Constitution

The high court of the Western Cape ruled that the government of South Africa, first respondent, and the Western Cape government, second respondent, had violated the Constitution (section 29.1.a). The respondent departments included education, social development, health, transport and public works. The court ordered them to provide education of an adequate quality for learners with severe to profound intellectual disability at special care centres in the Western Cape, including:

* Funds to special care centres for adequate facilities and hiring adequate staff;

* Transport for learners;

* Training and accreditation for appropriate remuneration for special care centre staff; and

* Training for people to teach learners at special care centres.

Although the court order is limited to the Western Cape, it sets precedents nationally. 

The sector expected the department of basic education and the Western Cape education department to lead the implementation of the court order to fulfil their constitutional and legislative mandate. Jurisprudence confirms that education infrastructure and remuneration of staff, and learner transport, are components of the right to education. The department of basic education obtained a conditional grant for the education of learners with severe to profound intellectual disability at special care centres. The grant framework stipulates that teachers at special schools will be trained and will provide support to special care centres. The education minister reported that the department of basic education and University of Cape Town would develop a Level 5 course for the accreditation of staff at special care centres with the conditional grant. Significantly, the grant does not meet most of the requirements of the court order, and has been only partially implemented.

2020: Report card

In the Western Cape, funding from the department of social development and the department of health to special care centres has increased from R34-million in 2011 to R80-million in 2017, including R11-million from the Western Cape education department, to fund outreach teams to special care centres, which partly addresses the court order. The department of social development and the department of health’s funding includes contributions for learner transport, staff remuneration and training, which although welcome, are far from adequate. 

The Western Cape Forum for Intellectual Disability commends officials who relentlessly advocate for the right to education of marginalised children. The department of social development has committed R14-million for adapted buses and related operational costs for eight centres from 2019 to 2021. (In the Eastern Cape, special care centres receive R22 a learner a day for 20 days a month from the department of social development, for the special care centre running costs.)

Significantly, in 2017, when the department of basic education got a conditional grant of R477-million for the education of learners at special care centres nationally, the Western Cape education department relied solely on the conditional grant to implement the court order in the Western Cape. The department of basic education and Western Cape education department outreach teams, funded by the conditional grant (R719-million in 2019), provide essential support for learners and staff at special care centres nationally. But in the Western Cape, their support amounts to six to 10 hours of quarterly visits, training and toolkits by the outreach team, which is inadequate to meet the needs of the learner. This can by no means be considered the provision of education of an adequate quality for learners at special care centres. 

The conditional grant is not adequate to meet the requirements of the court order. But provinces undermine requests for additional funding when they repeatedly return these funds to the treasury. 

The department of basic education has acknowledged that implementation of the court order requires amendments to legislation. It has developed a draft policy and learning programme for learners with severe to profound intellectual disability and has had several engagements with the Western Cape Forum for Intellectual Disability, for which they should be commended. 

The sector remains concerned that discussions and policies, without political will, sound leadership, time-bound implementation plans, quality performance indicators, funding models and stringent monitoring and consequence management, will remain good intentions. 

Accountability

In 2018-2019, the Western Cape Forum for Intellectual Disability escalated its advocacy for the right to education to Parliament and has made several written submissions to the portfolio committee on basic education, one oral submission to the standing and select committees on appropriations and a written submission requested by the treasury. The portfolio committee on basic education (fifth administration), met the Western Cape Forum for Intellectual Disability and toured a few special care centres, promising to include its findings in its report to the next committee. 

When the department of basic education tabled its 2018-1019 annual report in October last year, the minister of basic education postponed the department’s response to the Western Cape Forum for Intellectual Disability’s submission to their scheduled report on inclusive education. 

The auditor general and the Finance and Fiscal Commission, in tabling their reports on the department of basic education’s performance in October 2019, raised concerns about the department’s implementation of special or inclusive education. 

The auditor general has required the department of basic education to report specifically on evidence of, inter alia, the formal assessment of learners at special care centres and their enrolment on the South African School Administration and Management System, as mandated by the Division of Revenue Bill.

It is encouraging that the incumbent portfolio committee on basic education, despite reported initial hiccups, is standing firm in holding the department of basic education accountable on this matter. When the department of basic education failed to respond to the Western Cape Forum for Intellectual Disability’s questions in their report on inclusive education, the committee ordered the department of basic education to respond to the questions in detail in writing. The Western Cape Forum for Intellectual Disability awaits the department of basic education’s response.

2020: A year for action

Then president Jacob Zuma declared at the Disability Rights Summit in 2016 that, by 2021, no child with a disability would be out of school. Since the 2001 gazetting of white paper 6 (2001–2021), the department of basic education has developed various plans, policies, strategies and guidelines to address the educational exclusion of learners with disabilities. Yet, 10 cohorts of learners at special care centres continue to be left behind since the 2010 court order. Learners at special care centres are not charity cases or patients. They are children who are entitled to the basic human and constitutional right to education. Children are not “left behind”. We leave them behind. We are failing our children. We need to do better.

Vanessa Japtha is a teacher and the advocacy manager at the Western Cape Forum for Intellectual Disability

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