South Africa has a reputation for having one of the most progressive and nondiscriminatory constitutions in the world. Ratified in 1996 after the fall of Apartheid, the Constitution seemed to promise an end to a dark era of discrimination in South Africa. However, twenty years later, rights groups claim its promises have failed to protect certain vulnerable populations. A recent report by Human Rights Watch estimates that the government is neglecting 500,000 children with disabilities, turning them away from public schools and denying them their right to education. The report claims that South Africa’s refusal to educate these children has the long-term effect of denying them full integration into society, keeping them from socializing with their peers and learning necessary life skills.
South Africa’s Constitution promises equal protection under the law regardless of disability, and it includes the right to basic education. The UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratified by South Africa in 1995, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), ratified by South Africa in 2007, require disabled children have access to an “inclusive, quality, and free” public education. Both call upon states to take necessary measures to ensure the preservation of this right. Under Article 24 of the CRPD, states are responsible for providing education through employing teachers who understand disability and by training educational staff in disability awareness and alternative methods of communication and teaching. Articles 8, 19, and 24 of the CRPD hold states accountable for raising public awareness and acceptance of disability, ensuring people with disabilities can participate within their communities, and facilitating learning environments that foster the development of disabled children’s talents and abilities to their maximum potential.
According to Human Rights Watch, South Africa’s government is failing to meet its obligations under the CRC and CRPD. Public schools often reject children with disabilities or force their parents to pay extra school fees, consequently making a quality education inaccessible for the country’s poorest children. These kids are not learning the fundamental skill sets they will need to become independent, productive members of society. They remain dependent on caretakers and become isolated from their communities due to lack of access to opportunities to learn social and life skills.
The South African educational system also lacks the resources to include children with disabilities in educational settings appropriate to their special needs. Even when disabled children are accepted into mainstream schools, the state usually does not provide teachers enough training to be sensitive to their disabilities and to use alternative teaching methods in order to include them in the classroom. Therefore, many children suffer neglect and sometimes even abuse in their schools, resulting from a combination of reduced ability to communicate when others mistreat them and frustration on the part of teachers who lack the tools needed to properly address their needs.
Sometimes these students, after mainstream schools have mistreated them, are unable to enter new schools for several years due to lack of options provided by the state. Consequently, children with disabilities fall behind. Disabled children lose out on more than an education; they lose out on the ability to develop socially because they are isolated from their peers, they lack the life skills that a child normally learns in an educational environment, and they are unable to participate in the community. In the long run, this can lead to lack of preparedness for standard work environments, leaving people with disabilities largely dependent upon their families, other caretakers, or the state.
Despite the many hurdles to receiving an education, the plight of children with disabilities in South Africa is not hopeless. Human Rights Watch’s report and other coverage has brought attention to the human rights violations disabled children experience and could potentially prompt the South African government to consider focusing its resources on training teachers to adequately address disability and education rights. The South African government has already responded to the report by stating that its education department is working to “improve data-gathering and screening” in order to better understand the obstacles in accessing education and to place children in educational settings appropriate to their needs. Furthermore, HRW has recommended solutions to the government such as “[r]etrofitting existing mainstream schools” to accommodate children with special needs as opposed to building new schools that would segregate them from their peers. In addition to being more cost-effective, retrofitting would free up funds to train teachers and foster a more inclusive learning environment. While the obstacles to education remain great for children with disabilities, South Africa has many options to remedy the situation in choosing to acknowledge the problem the nation’s children face.