In a new report released August 18, Human Rights Watch accused the South African government of falling woefully short of its international obligations to ensure free, inclusive education for children with disabilities.
“Children with disabilities continue to face discrimination when accessing all types of public schools,” the 94-page report states. “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.”
Despite being a signee to half a dozen international treaties mandating a right to free, primary education, HRW found that South African public schools routinely deny enrollment to students with disabilities.
In the alternative, schools often charge students with disabilities for certain services, effectively pushing them out of the mainstream school system.
As a result, HRW estimates that more than 500,000 children with disabilities are not enrolled in school, and many more are not receiving appropriate services.
These findings stand in stark contrast to the government’s recent announcement that it had met the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of enrolling all children in primary schools by 2015.
“The South African government needs to admit that it is not providing quality education to all of its children – in fact, no schooling at all to many who have disabilities,” said Elin Martinez, author of the report, in a news release. “The job is not done until all children count just the same in the education system.”
At schools, students with disabilities are often confronted with obvious physical barriers, such as steep ramps, and a lack of basic services, such as sign language interpreters and written materials in Braille, as documented in the report. Violence at certain schools is rampant, much of it targeted at students with disabilities.
According to the international experts, most of the problems identified in the report are not unique to South Africa.
“Many, if not most, of disabled children are not enrolled in schools in developing countries,” says Hannah Kuper, co-director of the International Centre for Evidence in Disability at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the Guardian.
For the report, titled “Complicit in Exclusion: South Africa’s Failure to Guarantee an Inclusive Education for Children with Disabilities,” states, HRW conducted research in 5 of the nation’s 9 provinces, as well as interviewed more than 135 students.
HRW produced the following video to accompany the report.