A Human Rights Watch report finds systemic breakdowns in South Africa for children with disabilities

Children climb a slide in the public play area in Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town, South Africa, Dec. 29, 2014.

Human Rights Watch issued today a thoroughly demoralizing report on the status of children with disabilities within the South African school system. The report finds serious faults in the treatment of such children, from systemic exclusion and segregation to outright violence against them, within South Africa’s schools. According to HRW: “Segregation and lack of inclusion permeates all levels of South Africa’s education system and reflect fundamental breaches of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities [CRPD]. Barriers to inclusive education begin in the very early stages of children’s lives because children are classified according to their disabilities.”

The report’s authors grimly note that South Africa was one of the first countries to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2007 and is a party to five key international human rights treaties and two African treaties protecting and guaranteeing children economic and social rights. They add that since 1996, the government has introduced strong constitutional protections and legal and policy measures to safeguard every child’s right to education free from discrimination. On paper, and often according to government self-assessments, South Africa has been living up to these legal accords and good intentions, however, HRW researchers say otherwise. They report that the government of South Africa has “left over half a million children with disabilities out of school, and hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities, who are presently in school, behind.”

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Among this report’s key findings:

• Discrimination accessing education: children with disabilities continue to face discrimination when accessing all types of public schools. Schools often decide whether they are willing or able to accommodate students with particular disabilities or needs. In many cases, children with intellectual disabilities, multiple disabilities, and autism or fetal alcohol syndromes are particularly disadvantaged. In most cases, schools make the ultimate decision—often arbitrary and unchecked—as to who can enroll.

• Discrimination due to a lack of reasonable accommodation in school: many students in mainstream schools face discriminatory physical and attitudinal barriers they need to overcome in order to receive an education. Many students in special schools for children with sensory disabilities do not have access to the same subjects as children in mainstream schools, jeopardizing their access to a full curriculum.

• Discriminatory fees and expenses: children with disabilities who attend special schools pay school fees that children without disabilities do not, and many who attend mainstream schools are asked to pay for their own class assistants as a condition of staying in mainstream classes. Additionally, parents often pay burdensome transport and boarding costs if special schools are far from families and communities, and, in some cases, they must also pay for special food and diapers.

• Violence, abuse, and neglect in schools: students are exposed to violence and abuse in many of South Africa’s schools, but children with disabilities are more vulnerable to such unlawful and abusive practices.

• Lack of quality education: children with disabilities in many public schools receive low quality education in poor learning environments. They continue to be significantly affected by a lack of teacher training and awareness about inclusive education methodologies and the diversity of disabilities, a dearth of understanding and practical training about children’s needs according to their disabilities, and an absence of incentives for teachers to instruct children with disabilities.

• Lack of preparation for life after basic education: the consequences of a lack of inclusive quality learning are particularly visible when adolescents and young adults with disabilities leave school. While a small number of children with disabilities successfully pass the secondary school certificate, or matric, many adolescents and young adults with disabilities stay at home after finishing compulsory education; many lack basic life skills. Their progression into skills-based work, employment, or further education is affected by the type and quality of education available in the special schools they attend.

“All children, including those with disabilities, have a right to free and compulsory primary education, and to secondary education and further education or training,” say the report’s authors. “All people with disabilities have the right to continue learning and to learn and progress on an equal basis with all people.” That is as true in the United States as it is in South Africa or in any other state. It would be foolish to believe that South Africa is the only country where such a disservice to children is taking place.

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