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Difficulties of Studying in South Africa for Students with Disabilities

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“At ordinary schools they tease you. People are cruel. They forget to accommodate you. You are an inconvenience.” This is a quote from Lane Wahl – a South African student with a visual impairment. Children with disabilities are legally allowed to attend “normal” school. In reality, very few do because of the lack of accommodations and failure by the school to recognize them as “normal” students. The next option for these students is to attend a school specifically designed for students with disabilities. While this sounds like the perfect solution, there are not nearly enough special education schools to accommodate the amount of students. Parents and students with disabilities in South Africa are continuously fighting to access not just high quality education, but any education at all. Education is a constitutional right, but is being treated as a privilege. The lack of access to education for individuals with disabilities is causing long-lasting effects on thousands of students with disabilities across South Africa.

There are more than five-hundred thousand children in South Africa who are not attending school. As you may have expected, the five-hundred thousand children are all disabled. While there are many factors to blame for this unacceptable number of unenrolled students, including lack of accommodations and lack of qualified teachers, one of the biggest reasons for this exorbitantly high number is lack of government funding. According to The Department of Basic Education, only 3% of the National Department of Education’s budget is spent on special needs schools. The Tshwaraganang Daycare Centre for the Disabled in the North West township of Ikageng houses more than 35 students with disabilities, ranging from ages 14 and 26, most of whom have had no formal education. According to Charles Molutsi, the school’s manager, the lack of funds made it difficult to cater to the educational needs of the students. According to Molutsi, “The contributions from the children is not enough to cover the rent, food and cleaning equipment.” He also added that the main source of income for the school was the money it received from the students’ monthly fees. According to Barnett, lack of access to early education predicts poor academic outcomes.

Not only does the lack of government funding affect the quality of the school, it also affects the cost of attending school. The majority of students in South Africa exercise their constitutional right of free education. But students with disabilities are facing barriers to access their free education. Students with disabilities should be guaranteed equality in all aspects of their education, including having the opportunity to be accommodated in free, conventional schools. Special schools are not a part of the the government’s “no fee schools” list. So when these students are frequently denied access to “normal” schools, they are being forced to pay to attend special education schools that the government doesn’t fund. Schools on the no fee list typically cover children who live in low-income areas, which describes a majority of South African students. According to Spreen, fees have rendered the dream of free education in South Africa an unachievable goal. There is no reason why public schools that cater to students with disabilities are not on the no fee schools list when the students come from the same background. The Department for Basic Education’s most senior official recently stated, “It is time for special schools to be declared no fee schools and the Department needs to make it a priority.” The government now needs to act on their words and remove the fees for students with disabilities so that they can receive education on an equal playing field as every other student.

From watching the Legacy of Exclusion documentary, I was under the impression that special education schools are in high demand because of their excellent facilities and outstanding teachers. Upon doing further research, I realized that there was more to the story than what is seen from the outside. Close to half of the students with disabilities who do attend school go to special schools. Because these schools are so scarce and spread out, students regularly stay in school hostels. For example, according to De Kadt, children from Johannesburg, a relatively well-off community in South Africa, still have substantial travel time to get to school everyday. According to Robyn Beere, a member and writer for the Right To Education for Children with Disabilities Alliance, The Basic Education Department has noted the extremely poor conditions and high rate of child abuse in special school hostels. While these schools provide the necessary accommodations, some of the school hostels are in such poor condition and do not receive nearly the same amount of funding from the government that “normal” schools do. The failure to provide for these children in hostels is partially a result of the failure of the government to ensure there are qualified, well-trained carers for the children after school. A 2018 South African Human Rights Commission report documented the “systemic failures in compliance with the basic safety regulations” that led to 3 students in the hostel being burned to death in a fire in August, 2015. Twenty-three other students were also injured during the same incident trying to escape. The doors to the hostel were locked, which was said to be an attempt to make up for the absence of caregivers after school. The report also mentioned that this was not the first incident of this manner. As this story shows, there is more to be seen than what meets the eye. Parents are constantly fighting and putting their kids on waiting list after waiting list to try to get the education that their child deserves. When the parents are finally are lucky enough to have their kids be admitted into one of the very few schools for students with disabilities, the safety and well-being of their kids is put into jeopardy. These students, who have traveled so far from home that they need to stay in a hostel, deserve to be treated with respect and receive the help and accommodations they may need. Just like access to education, respect and a high standard of living is not too much to ask for.

After watching the Legacy of Exclusion documentary and performing research on the topic of inclusive education in South Africa, I learned about the struggles that children with disabilities and their families face when they are not awarded the same opportunities as others. The lack of access to education does not only affect the student themselves, but also the entire family. Throughout this course, I have learned that people with disabilities are the same as you and me and deserve to be treated as such. This lack of education is not a small problem. It is affecting half a million students and families all across South Africa. This pattern of disclusion needs to change, or else thousands of children will never be able to reach their fullest potential and feel like they have a place in this world.  

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Difficulties of Studying in South Africa for Students With Disabilities. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 26, 2022, from
“Difficulties of Studying in South Africa for Students With Disabilities.” GradesFixer, 24 May 2022,
Difficulties of Studying in South Africa for Students With Disabilities. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 26 Jun. 2022].
Difficulties of Studying in South Africa for Students With Disabilities [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 May 24 [cited 2022 Jun 26]. Available from:
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