The White Paper on Inclusive Education, published in 2001, has not yet been enacted into a law that leaves students with disabilities without access to schools and with little legal recourse.

The educational needs of children with disabilities are ignored, despite the existing basis for correcting this. Such a lack of attention to children with additional needs worries many parents who are desperate for more inclusive schools.

“My biggest disappointment in the Department of Basic Education is inclusive education, not just enrollment,” said 40-year-old Kgamotso Mmalegae Maalusi, a 10-year-old mother of autistic twins Lesedi and Letab Maalusi.

Maalusi, who is also a member of the governing body of her children’s school, says inclusion means that children’s needs, talents and shortcomings are at the core of the curriculum. She wants the curriculum in schools for children with disabilities to enable students to study science – or just something other than wood or handicrafts.

“I have a child who can disassemble a phone and reassemble it, even if he can’t speak,” she says. Educational programs need to be creative and adaptive to allow these children to learn, grow and be innovative.

Maalusi asked the principal of her children’s school to improve communication by replacing the old intercom system with a walkie-talkie, which would make the learning environment more conducive for autistic children.

The children of these schools are also worthy of sports. “Schools have fields and swimming pools – our kids don’t know how to swim because someone else doesn’t want to take on extra responsibilities to teach them that,” Maalusi says.

Without legally binding regulation, the educational needs of children with disabilities have not yet been recognized. Published in 2001, the White Paper on Education 6: Education for people with mental and physical disabilities – the creation of an inclusive education and training system has been dusting for the past 21 years. “This White Paper is based on the need to make changes in the provision of education and training so that they meet and respond to different learning needs,” it said. But there seems to be no clear plan to turn it into law.

Mobilization for inclusion

Professionals and a group of parents raising autistic children formed the nonprofit Autism Matters, which advocates for autism, in January. April was Autism Awareness Month, so on April 1, parents held marches in Gkeberg, Naisn and Pretoria to highlight the lack of services for autistic children.

Maalusi was among the parents who went to the basic education department offices in Pretoria to present the memorandum. The march, according to Maalusi, was dedicated to how long children wait for admission and what happens in schools with those who are accepted. The memorandum emphasizes the need for an inclusive education policy. Many children are expelled or denied entry on the basis of a diagnosis or signs of autism.

Robin Beer, deputy director of the Legal Center for Equal Education, says strengthening the link between the preschool development centers, the basic education department and higher education will help facilitate the continuous transition through the education sector for people with disabilities. With this in mind, Autism Matters also suggested that the basic education department, as part of its program, provide quality training at universities.

The White Paper covers all stages of education, from early development centers to higher education, says Beer. “However, in practice, these sectors and the relevant government agencies responsible for them do not work together to ensure the smooth transition of child support services throughout the learning path.”

“The number of students with disabilities, in particular those who have taken the subject, is much lower than the national rate and lower than the number of students who have entered the university,” says Beer. “This indicates a low quality of education for students with disabilities.”

Little support

Beer, who is also chair of the Alliance for the Right to Education for Children with Disabilities Alliance, paints a bleak picture of the number of children with additional needs who require access to education but do not attend school. There are no accurate and reliable figures in this regard. According to Beer, estimates by the Department of Basic Education have ranged from 40,000 to 600,000 over the past seven years. There is also no clear plan to identify these students for placing them in schools, she says.

“The fact that there is no clear way to determine the number of students at our school means that [department] cannot plan and budget for the inclusion of these students in schools ”.

In a review of the inclusive education framework, the Center for Equal Education Law found that the government does not accept children with disabilities. “Twenty years later, the implementation deadlines outlined in the White Paper 6 have come to an end, and many of the set goals remain unfulfilled. Thus, despite the lofty goals set out in the White Paper 6, the inclusive education system continues to shy away from us. ”

The report recommends “imposing a moratorium on the construction of additional special schools until all existing special schools are brought up to standard and function as resource centers.”

“The White Paper has no force of law, as it simply reflects the position of the government’s official policy on a specific issue of public concern,” the report said. “In order to fulfill the constitutional and international obligations of the state, the policy ideals reflected in the White Paper 6 must be translated into law.”

An example of how legislation can help provide education for children with additional needs is to make schools more accessible and closer to home. Maalusi complains that schools for children with disabilities are located far from the homes of students, unlike ordinary ones. Every child in South Africa has the right to attend school within 5 km of their home. Maalusi travels one way for about 40 km to take his children to school.