When President Cyril Ramaphosa presented his first State of the Nation address in Parliament on February 16, he called up the memory of the recently deceased music legend Hugh Masekela and invited South Africans to “lend a hand”. Social media was alive with requests for the president to #SendMe, in response to this moving call.

Unfortunately, children with disabilities, their parents and disability rights activists have not received Ramaphosa’s promises with equal optimism.
We have become numb to winning slogans and passing references to children with disabilities’ plight in political speeches. We have also learnt through bitter experience that no slogan or symbolic gesture can replace the systematic overhaul of the basic education system that is required to ensure an inclusive education for all children.

The most recent slogan adopted by the basic education department, “No child left behind”, is an excellent illustration of ultimately empty rhetoric. In reality, the government is leaving most children with disabilities behind, with no education at all.

When their peers began school in January this year, a month before Ramaphosa’s speech, by the department’s own estimates, about 590 000 children with disabilities had no school to go to. Many of them have been on waiting lists for special schools for up to five years. Some as old as 14 have never been to school.

On paper, children with disabilities are legally entitled to attend “ordinary” schools with their peers but, in reality, very few do. According to the department’s estimates, about 125 000 children with disabilities attend these schools. But complaints about failures to reasonably accommodate pupils with disabilities are ubiquitous. Discrimination is rife. In 2015, a grade 12 pupil, Lane Wahl, who is partially sighted, told public-interest law centre Section27 of her experience. “At ordinary schools they tease you. People are cruel. They forget to accommodate you. You are an inconvenience,” she said.

These children’s dignity is being compromised. Something as simple as going to the toilet or moving between classes can become a traumatic ordeal. Private space is seldom allocated to accommodate children with disabilities’ personal needs and school buildings are largely inaccessible to children using wheelchairs, who then have to crawl or be carried.

About half the children with disabilities who do attend school, about 120 000, go to special schools. But, on the whole, the conditions there are unconscionable. Because many of these schools are in far-flung places, the children commonly stay in school hostels. But reports of physical, sexual and emotional abuse as well as inadequate care and supervision in the hostels discourage parents from sending children to them.

The department itself has noted the “extremely poor conditions” and a “high rate of child abuse in special school hostels”.

The severe neglect and abuse of children in hostels is partially a result of the failure of the government to ensure there are paid, trained carers for the children after school hours.

A 2018 South African Human Rights Commission report painfully documents the “systemic” failures in compliance with basic safety regulations that led to three deaf girls being burned to death in a hostel in North West in August 2015. Twenty-three other children were injured after they jumped from the first floor of the hostel to escape the fire. The doors to their hostel had been locked, apparently in attempt to make up for the absence of after-hour care. The report tells us that this was not the first such incident.

The commission is correct in identifying that the entire system is responsible for these tragedies. As brutal and awful as these incidents are, we wonder how big a tragedy is needed to get the required government response. Something on the scale of Life Esidimeni in a special school hostel? This is not an impossibility.

We write as members of the Right to Education for Children with Disabilities Alliance. We have repeatedly briefed Parliament and the executive on the extent, depth and urgency of this crisis over several years. We have produced ample clear evidence of the education system’s substantial failure to provide for children with disabilities.

This week, as a group of people living with disabilities and disability rights activists, we will make a submission to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Geneva. We will share painful, personal, individual stories and bring attention to the significant systemic deficiencies in South Africa’s “inclusive” education system.

We will then ask the committee to declare the government’s significant failures as a flagrant violation of the Constitution and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which protects the right to “inclusive education”.

The department of basic education, in its current five-year strategic plan, has committed itself, once again, to advancing inclusive education. In a parliamentary portfolio committee meeting, the department admitted that “drastic measures” are necessary. Speeches by the president and the minister of basic education also frequently pay lip service to the issue. But, when the budgets are produced, the money doesn’t follow.

According to nongovernmental organisation Human Rights Watch, not a single special school is categorised as a no-fee school. This transfers the financial burden on to parents, many of whom cannot afford the expense.

Despite this bleak picture, there are growing pockets of good inclusive practice in ordinary and special schools. Some special schools have been converted into resource centres, which offer outreach programmes to surrounding ordinary schools. Some ordinary schools have changed their attitudes from exclusion to a willingness to include. Some schools have made adjustments to the school environment, curriculum and ethos to ensure that children with disabilities can find a happy place.

It is the promotion of these examples that we urge the department to prioritise and replicate.

The time to act is now. South Africa’s children do not have years to wait while the department plans for their education. They cannot endure another gradual, plodding plan or policy.

To make good on the slogan “No child left behind”, the department is aiming to see that all children with disabilities are attending a school by 2021.

But without significantly more funding, accurate data collection, adequate planning and a genuine attempt to monitor and evaluate the implementation of its policies, this remains devastatingly unlikely.

Ramaphosa and the government must acknowledge and listen to those who are already “lending a hand”. Our small delegation in Geneva this week is a good example of this.

Mr President, we, like so many other South Africans, are helping ourselves already. What we need is a government that is willing to support us and make good on its promises and policies. Please lend us a hand.

Robyn Beere, Silomo Khumalo and Tim Fish Hodgson write as members of the Right to Education for Children with Disabilities Alliance