‘I only want the same for her as any other parent wants for their child’
Parents fight for children with disabilities to access fee-free education
Even as she cradles her daughter gently in her arms, Julia Dube admits that there are times that she hates seven-year-old Alisha.
Her resentment stems from not being able to find a job because she is forced to take care of Alisha almost every hour of each day.
“I want her to go to school so that she can get proper help with learning, and so that I can do something for myself like getting a job,” a frustrated Dube told Times Select from her home in Orange Farm, south of Johannesburg.
“But for now I’m stuck and it’s very painful. I end up hating her and I have [a lot of] anger. I’m getting better but it took me some time to accept.”
Alisha was born with cerebral palsy and is one of half a million children in South Africa with disabilities who do not go to school, according to NGO Human Rights Watch.“The nearest Special School is [80km away] in Thembisa and costs R2,300 a month,” said Dube.
“That excludes the [nappies] you have to buy and you have to collect her when she’s ill, which is often. Here in Orange Farm there is only a private home where they are asking R1,600 a month, and that is only to care for her without any schooling.”
Like hundreds of thousands of other children with disabilities, it is not because Alisha has no capacity for learning that she doesn’t go to school, but because she has no access to a school that meets her needs; her parents cannot afford to send her to one that does; and the mainstream schools in her area will not accept her.
Only 453 public special schools exist nationwide for the more than 3 million children with disabilities, none of which are no-fee-paying schools.
But now a group of determined mothers is fighting to ensure their children are allowed the same right to the inclusive fee-free education enjoyed by the majority of children in SA.
Together with over 1,000 caregivers from non-profit civil organisation Afrika Tikkun, 4,500 families from the Disabled Children’s Action Group (DICAG) brought a petition to the Department of Education in December demanding free education for children enrolled in special schools.
They also want the inclusion of children with disabilities in ordinary and full service schools close to where they live.Tikkun advocacy officer Makhoaphe Letsie, who also runs support groups for families, says it costs on average R2,000 to R3,000 to send a child to a special school where waiting lists can be as long as three years.
“And this doesn’t include all the additional costs such their special diets, transport costs – which are up to three times more for a child with a disability – nappies in some cases and extra mural activities,” she said.
Letsie said that policy tools to assess children in appropriate schools were not being made use of and that children with disabilities were often being turned away from schools because of they way they looked.
“Many children with mild intellectual disabilities should be going to mainstream schools,” she said.
“You would find a child with a developmental delay, and some with mild autism or Down syndrome, who can talk and interact and don’t need that much special care. They are able to be allowed into mainstream schools but most are not.
“Some are rejected just because they are in a wheelchair even though they have no intellectual disability.”
The director of inclusive education at the Department of Basic Education, Moses Simelane, said the government was aware that there are no fee-free Special Schools and that the matter is “under consideration in the department”.
Simelane said the Education Department also needs the help of the Department of Social Development.
“A number of measures have been put in place, for example the policy on screening, identification and support, which is [a] mechanism for early identification of barriers to learning and intervention,” he said. The government had also allocated a R649-million conditional grant to mobilise and provide education to children with severe to profound intellectual disabilities over three years.
But for Dube, none of these interventions have been made reality for her daughter.
“I only want the same for her as any other parent wants for their child.”