“I want to exercise my right to go to a school of my choice and not be forced to go to an exclusive school for the blind,” said Delisle, a blind Form 4 student from Swaziland – helping to kick-start a three-day conference on education for children with disabilities with a clear and compelling call for inclusive education.
But sadly – as a five nation study on the state of special needs education (SNE) shows – southern African countries are a long way from being able to provide decent education of any sort for most children with disabilities across the region.
Conducted by the Secretariat of the Africa Decade of Persons with Disabilities (SADPD) with support from OSISA, the research painted a grim picture of the situation in Malawi, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland and South Africa – and across the region. Not only is there a dearth of data on children with disabilities and access to education, there is also lack of adequate budgetary allocation to SNE, even though most Education Ministries have established SNE units.
At the same time, the lack of adequately trained teachers and critical policy gaps are major bottlenecks hampering the provision of quality SNE – which is compounded by high levels of discrimination and stigmatisation against children with disabilities due to the negative attitudes of parents, teachers and communities.
Shockingly, disabled children are still viewed as a ‘curse on the family or community’ by many southern Africans – making it easy to deny them their basic rights, such as education.
To help tackle this, the Swaziland Ministry of Education and Training, SADPD and OSISA organised this major conference under the theme of ‘Rights of Children with Disabilities: The Duty to Protect, Respect, Promote and Fulfil Education for all Children with Disabilities’ – with the aim of issuing a ‘call for action’ by all stakeholders to fulfil the right to education for children with disabilities.
And there is no doubt that the right exists. Most southern African countries have signed and ratified the UN Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Rights of Children as well as the SADC Education and Training Protocol, among others. All these instruments oblige states to ensure the fulfilment of the right to education for all children and they further call on states to particularly fulfil the right to education for children with disabilities.
But these rights exist largely on paper since in practice structural challenges impede access to education for most disabled children.
And it is not just a problem at lower levels. As a parent of one of the visually impaired learners in Swaziland asked, “where is the university for my daughter?”
“She has struggled to make it through primary and secondary education, walked long distances to school, withstood stigmatisation, made use of the limited learning materials available, had to wait two years at home before the classes form 3 and 4 were introduced at her school, but it seems her education will be nipped in the bud due to lack of facilities at the university level.”
There are no Braille materials at the university level, new technologies for accessing audio materials have not been embraced and there are inadequate, if any, sign language lectures. And other disabilities are also not catered for. Courses are not tailored for learners with disabilities and nor is the infrastructure. These issues receive peripheral attention – if any – from most planners and yet they are life changing for those who depend on them to undertake tertiary education.
However, as the saying goes ‘disability is not inability’ and where targeted interventions have been made, tremendous achievements have been noted.
At the conference, there were many children with disabilities who have beaten the huge odds stacked against them and are now flourishing. A student with hearing impairment explained how he has sailed through primary school and into secondary school and had come second in Form 4. Another student with a speech impairment addressed the delegates using sign language through an interpreter and stated that he passed Grade 7 with a distinction.
This shows that what is required is political commitment to ensure a conducive educational environment for children with disabilities and to tackle wider issues of stigmatisation and discrimination. But interventions need to start at early childhood development level (most children with disabilities are not included at this stage at all) and they need to be institutionalised throughout the whole system.
As governments move to implement these interventions, they must also understand the concepts behind the right to education of children with disabilities. Indeed, there has been intense drama and debate around whether or not SNE is different from education for children with disabilities. Indeed, SNE, just like inclusive education, caters for a broader category of learners including children with disabilities.
However, unlike inclusive education, SNE is losing favour among human rights advocates. Accordingly, southern African States should think more in terms of inclusive education and not SNE when implementing these interventions since the definition and understanding of SNE has proved to be controversial.
But ultimately, as this conference has shown – what is needed is for southern African countries to move away from rhetoric and begin to reform their education systems so that they successfully cater for children with disabilities – and provide them with the chance of a brighter future.
And only when existing inequalities facing marginalised and vulnerable groups of children, and children with disabilities specifically, are addressed will southern Africa be able to say that education for ‘all’ is indeed be education for ALL.
By Wongani Grace Nkoma, OSISA Education Programme Manager, and Enoch Chilemba, Doctoral researcher, Community Law Centre at the University of the Western CapeShareThis