Blind and visually impaired learners face a constant battle to get access to equal and quality education – especially during the pandemic.
On 5 August, Blind SA held an urgent discussion with civil society groups and interested parties on the education crisis for blind and visually impaired learners during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nearly 50 people attended the virtual dialogue, including representatives from the Free State Department of Education and the national Department of Basic Education.
Speakers included Jace Nair (CEO, Blind SA), Dr Siva Moodley (teacher and retired director of Unisa student affairs), Robyn Beere (deputy director, Equal Education Law Centre), Christo de Klerk (chairperson, Blind SA), Irene Mashele (secretary, House of Hope), and Jack Devnarain (actor and chairperson of the South African Guild of Actors.
An infringement of human rights
Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial, or religious groups.”
In South Africa, access to quality and equal education for learners with disabilities is very limited. This has worsened with the Covid-19 pandemic where special needs schools have been neglected in governmental decisions and considerations.
Blind SA and the Equal Education Law Centre have been negotiating with the Department of Basic Education from before the lockdown in March regarding the unsatisfactory infrastructure, lack of learner-teacher support material (LTSM), and lack of basic assistive devices and safety at schools for the blind.
No child left behind
Beere says that the Equal Education Law Centre has had concerns during the lockdown about the “lack of attention that has been paid to ensuring protective measures for learners with disabilities”.
The Department of Basic Education has emphasised two principles in education during the pandemic. The first is No child left behind, and the second has been the health and safety of learners.
Beere says these two principles were not applied to learners with disabilities:
“Learners with disabilities have been the last to be considered when it comes to provisioning for personal protective equipment and health and safety measures in special schools.”
Beere said the first guidelines for special needs schools were only published on 23 June, after some of the schools (particularly for learners with visual impairments) had already returned.
Beere says these guidelines were only published after “much pressure from Blind SA and other organisations of persons with disabilities on the department.
“The government allowed children to return back to a school environment despite all of their promises to the contrary, without being able to ensure those would be safe in school.”
Pressure on Department to address shortfalls
The organisation continues to put pressure on the department to address the shortfalls. Beere says they recently obtained a court order compelling the education department to develop comprehensive guidelines for the categories of disabilities that were excluded previously. The department has three weeks to comply.
Beere says it is still a concern that it has taken this long and needed a court order to get the department to address the exclusion of those with disabilities:
“As soon as the writing pointed out it was a human rights issue, the fact that a child with a disability may require a device or a different type of PPE to ensure their health and safety is not special treatment, and is not an additional burden on the government. It is simply what they need in order to learn on an equal basis with every other child.”
A student perspective
Jonas (JJ) Ndlovu, a visually impaired Grade 11 pupil from Filadelfia Secondary LSEN School says he prides himself on being who he is:
“I’m thrilled to say to you, I pride myself to be one of the different, very unique learners, and who is willing to go an extra mile to build a better society and future for visually impaired people in South Africa.”
However, Ndlovu says he is not surprised that nothing has changed with regards to the government and its treatment of those with disabilities.
“It is always a disappointment, to our great dismay, that no matter how much we try, no matter how much we push, no matter how much we commit ourselves with ourselves, there are still those things that will certainly happen.
Ndlovu adds that it is time for those with disabilities to no longer “look up to the government to solve [their] issues. It is about time we as individuals do something.”
Watch the full webinar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNSEw9Q8bAs
For the full article published in the Daily Maverick, go to https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-08-06-visually-impaired-community-faces-education-crisis-and-abuse-by-law-enforcement/