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Disabled children face uphill education battle

Even though the Constitution guarantees disabled children the right to education, many don’t go to school, or have great difficulty in doing so.

More than half of children with disabilities in Orange Farm outside of the Johannesburg don’t go to school, despite the Constitution guaranteeing their right to it, according to Jean Elphick from nongovernmental organisation Afrika Tikkun’s Empowerment Programme.

Elphick was speaking at the 18th Rural Health Conference in Worcester on Monday.

“The compendium of legal and policy reform undertaken by the state in the last two decades demonstrates a clear commitment, at least in theory, to the right of access to a basic education for children with disabilities. Unfortunately, however, the implementation of inclusive education since the end of apartheid does not yet reflect law and policy,” she said.

According to a study that Elphick and her colleagues published in the academic journal
Childhood this year, parents and caregivers of disabled children in Orange Farm approach on average up to seven different schools seeking admission. Many spent between R600 and R900 travelling to and from offices and schools to obtain the necessary documentation and complete assessments.

The study authors said no local schools in the community cater for children with moderate to high educational support needs. “Reasons given for refusal of admission of children include lack of space in the school, insufficient facilities like ramps or continence care, or insufficient skills to accommodate the children with disabilities. Caregivers were also told that their children posed a risk to the teachers and other pupils, distracted other learners and were uncontrollable,” the authors found.

Additional reasons for exclusion included their children’s inability to read or write their names or speak English, their failure to undergo the necessary assessments (among others occupational therapy and educational psychology), the absence of necessary documentation or their residence in “the wrong” district.

Extremely challenging

“They [education department officials] won’t take you seriously. They will just tell you to tell the school to find a place. ‘We are very busy’. They act like they are very important people. So they are not treating us with respect,” one parent told the authors.

Caregivers and parents said transporting their disabled children to school was extremely challenging. Some relied on informal taxi drivers to take their children to the train station or to school. For one caregiver, this meant walking to a collection point for 40 minutes each morning with her nine-year-old son strapped to her back.

One mother told the researchers that her family calls her “crazy” for sending her son to school. “They say I must stay with this child at home. They say I am wasting my money,” she said.

According to Elphick, it’s “just a matter of time” before a disabled child is sexually abused in South African communities.

“Forty percent of rape cases in South Africa are rape of children, 15% of which are under the age of 12. Children with disabilities are reported to be at three to five times the risk of abuse than their non-disabled peers, and the threshold for reporting suspected abuse is lower for children with intellectual impairments,” she said.

Mia Malan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bhekisisa. She has worked in newsrooms in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Washington, DC, winning more than 30 awards for her radio, print and television work.