Are our schools disabled-friendly?
Some mainstream schools have managed to integrate disabled children into the mainstream. Here’s what’s possible.
Ashlee, a partially-sighted girl, currently attends Bergvliet Primary, a mainstream school in Cape Town. She uses a desk lamp to aid her note-taking during class and is assisted by a facilitator, who is paid for by her parents and who ensures that all her learning materials are accessible.

At Rondebosch Boy’s Preparatory, every effort has been made to accommodate Laura Beckurts’ son, Michael, who uses a wheelchair. Ramps have been constructed for him, and his classroom, which would have been on the first floor, has been brought down to the ground floor.

These are only a couple of examples of disabled learners attending mainstream schools.

The South African Schools Act of 1996 says that the government ‘must take all reasonable measures to ensure that the physical facilities at public schools are accessible to disabled persons.’ But 15 years after the Act was passed, just how effective are our schools at accommodating disabled learners?

In 2001, Education White Paper 6 said that all public schools should be equipped to accommodate learners with disabilities. A plan was proposed to convert 500 primary schools to ‘full service’ schools – or those that can accommodate disabled learners – over a period of 20 years.

Between 2001 and 2010, of the 500 schools that were to convert to full-service, only 8 achieved this . Some barriers to conversion that were cited are:

•    Lack of funding. Converting a school to be disabled friendly is a resource-heavy undertaking, and most government funded schools are already under-resourced.
•    Lack of training for teachers. Training in how to facilitate and teach disabled students must be prioritised if schools are to be truly full service.
•    Teachers argue that the demands of the new curriculum and overcrowded classes prohibit them from spending the necessary one-on-one time that teaching a disabled learner requires.

A new Department of Education document, the Guidelines for Full Service/Inclusive Schools, seeks to ensure access to public schools for all learners and claims to be the first step towards making all ordinary schools in South Africa full service schools.

Paddy Attwell, of the Western Cape Department of Education, says that the department is converting existing schools on an ongoing basis and their architects ensure that new schools are designed appropriately. Recent examples include the conversion of 3 schools to full service and the installation of lifts in a further 2. Contractors are upgrading physical facilities at three schools, while they have identified another 3 for full conversion in the new financial year.

And while they wait to be converted, schools have been making do. Elizabeth Walton, of the Wits School of Education, argues that a school need not be fully converted to accommodate disabled learners and can ‘become inclusive by being inclusive’.

For example, educator Charlene Palmer at Wynberg Girls High, says that because their building is over 100 years old, it’s difficult to ensure that it is entirely disabled-friendly, but they have made it work in individual situations. Currently, they have a learner who is hearing impaired. Teachers make use of a device that is linked to her hearing device so she can pick up what is being said in class.

‘There are going to be challenges for disabled learners at most mainstream schools,’ says Charlene, ‘but it's up to the school whether they want to make it work or not.’

Does your child’s school accommodate disabled learners?

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