Injustice against disabled children

WHEN the matric results were released last week, Louzanne Coetzee of Pioneer High School in Western Cape was named one of the top achievers in the country.

Louzanne, 18, was head girl at the Pioneer School for the Visually Impaired in Worcester.

She attained 93% for Afrikaans Home Language, 84% for English First Additional Language, 85% for Mathematics Literacy, 93% for Life Orientation, 77% for Computer Applications Technology, 83% for Consumer Studies, 97% for History and 66% for Practical Music.

Her efforts earned her a seat next to Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, who had lunch with top achievers last week. Louzanne is plans to study marketing at the University of Free State.

In North West, Letlhogonolo Mafela, a physically challenged 19-year-old boy from Matshepe village in Mahikeng, wrote matric with his toes and passed with remarkable results.

Letlhogonolo was born without arms and uses his feet to eat and write.

He attained 74% in Mathematics, 43% in Physical Sciences, 64% Setswana, 71% English, 74% Life Orientation and 66% in Life Sciences. Letlhogonolo will study Biological Sciences at the North West University.

Louzanne and Letlhogonolo are a few of the lucky students with special needs who have been able to get an education.

There are more than 1300 public and private schools for children with severe disabilities. The Department of Basic Education has a policy of "mainstreaming" special-needs children into ordinary schools in an attempt to prevent the discrimination of these children.

But this policy, however progressive, is not backed by adequate resources. As a result, although they are supposed to be placed at the centre of the education system, such children don't always get the special education they need to live meaningful lives.

Some of the better-off schools, both state-aided and private, offer remedial education in one form or another. They employ remedial teachers and run small remedial classes alongside regular classes.

The shortage of such schools, relative to the need, means that thousands of children with various forms of challenges sit at home and do nothing, their future looking bleak.

They have no prospects of overcoming or at least mitigating the effect of their challenges. If education is a certificate to escape poverty, it could also be a weapon to limit the impact that comes with being physically or mentally challenged.

Sadly, Louzanne and Letlhogonolo are a rarity. Children with disabilities who manage to get education usually drop out in Grade 9 - which is the highest level offered at most special schools.

According to The Right to Education for Children with Disabilities Campaign, it is estimated that there are 165000 disabled children who are out of shool.

According to the department's Report on National Senior Certificate Examination School Performance Analysis there is only one special school in Eastern Cape where pupils wrote matric - St Thomas Ffor the Deaf, where only six candidates wrote, three of whom passed.

North West also has one school - Christiana School for the Blind - with five candidates, all of whom passed. Louzanne's school had 16 candidates.

In total, only 34 special schools in the country had pupils writing matric.

The numbers in the schools are also not significant.

The school with the highest number of pupils is Ferndale Combined School in Pinetown, KwaZulu-Natal, with 37.

In the National Senior Certificate Technical Report that looks back at last year's matric performance and plans for the coming school year, there is no mention of improving enrolments or support for special needs schools.

Children at special schools are ignored and not enough resources are put into educating them. Excluding them from education means that they will be excluded for ever. They will never be able to join the job market and will always be marginalised from society.

The government needs to put in more resources to ensure that children with disabilities get the best education. They, like all other children, need to be given as much support and resources to ensure that they succeed. It is, after all, their constitutional right to access education.

While it is heartening to note the improvements in the pass rate to 70.2%, we should be worried about the large number of children with special needs who are not getting any education.

Motshekga needs to come up with a new strategy to ensure that children with learning disorders and disabilities get an education not different to others.

  • Tebogo Monama is education reporter for Sowetan.

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