Your special needs baby
In South Africa, up to 70 percent of children of school-going age with disabilities, or about 400 000 learners by recent estimates, are out of school. Of those who do attend, most are still in separate, ‘special’ schools for learners with disabilities. This despite the push for the educational inclusion of learners with disabilities by the South African Education White Paper 6.” So reads the abstract of The Challenges Of Realising Inclusive Education In South Africa by Dana Donohue and Juan Bornman from the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication from the University of Pretoria (2014).
South African students have a history of agitating for change in South Africa – from the youth protests of 1976 to the recent hair debate at high schools and the university fees protests hashtagged #Feesmustfall.
“We have an unfortunate tradition of segregation in our society, so people started thinking that separate, or special, education for people with disabilities was better education,” Professor Juan Bornman tells us. “And in some cases, like where a blind child needs to learn Braille, it can be true. But for the majority of children, it is more important to be taught in the same group” as normally developing children, she adds. “We need to start a conversation about the importance of inclusion.”
Prof Bornman stresses that life, and schooling, is about more than only performing academically. “If you ask parents across cultures and countries, in developed as well as developing countries, what their goals are for their children, the same things consistently head the list: I want them to be happy; I want them to have friends; I want them to one day find a job.” Children make exactly those social connections and learn about friendships at school. They learn how to live in a community, how to care for others, how to become people who can tick off all three items on the list above. But the majority of children with disabilities in South Africa are “isolated, excluded and silenced,” says Prof Bornman. “Our government research shows that half a million children of school-going age with disabilities are currently out of school. Half a million children out of school! How can we ever live with that?”
“Children are curious about everything, including disability. How will they learn if they are not exposed to people with disabilities? You’ll find that most of their parents did not attend inclusive schools so they have negative preconceptions about learning with disabled students in a class, such as that the teacher’s resources will be unfairly spent on one child. That is a fear of the unknown, and it is dispelled by exposure. If we want to address myths around disability then this is where we have to start,” she says.
“When you isolate, you start looking at people as objects, not human beings,” says Prof Bornman. “Unknown is unloved.” If we simply keep removing non-standard-issue children from society, we help neither those children nor our own, currently able-bodied and normally developing ones. “Teachers have to be taught how to accommodate children with multiple skills levels in one classroom,” argues Prof Bornman, “although many do so already. For instance, in the farm schools of yesteryear, one teacher taught children in different grades in one room. In some parts of the world, there isn’t the ‘luxury’ of a special school, there is just plain school,” she adds.
The UN Convention on The Rights of The Child as well as the UN Convention on The Rights of People with Disabilities, to which South Africa is a signatory, state that education is not only a human right, but also a non-progressive human right. This means that a state may not make it available only once funding becomes available, it must be provided immediately.
In reality, disabled children sometimes face being turned away by state schools. This is illegal, and has been tested in court. “Case law is starting to be created,” says Prof Bornman. In 2010, a group known as the Western Cape Forum for Intellectual Disability took the government to court – and won – over the government’s failure to provide basic schooling – neither specifically special nor integrated – for severely disabled children. YB