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It is common among people with disabilities to assume that access to higher education learning opportunities is difficult to achieve.

There is a myriad barriers that pupils who are enrolled in special schools experience.

Most special schools accommodate a certain category of disability; for instance, hearingimpaired, visually impaired or physically disabled.

Notwithstanding the barriers, they are anxious to transition from a special school to a largely mainstream tertiary institution.

Unfortunately, in SA there are no special universities or technical vocational education and training colleges.

When disabled people enter institutions of higher learning, it often becomes a struggle for them to integrate with other students.

By way of example, a hearing-impaired pupil is very used to connecting with the hearing-impaired community.

When they register at tertiary institutions, they meet a diverse group of students whom they are not used to (and who are not used to communicating with them).

The fear of being judged or stigmatised often results in uncertainty and insecurity regarding studies at a tertiary institution.

It may be better in the tertiary institutions where there are disability services units (DSUs) that provide support and facilitate integration of these students.

For Technical Vocational Education & Training (TVET) colleges where there are no DSUs, I imagine that it is challenging for these students.

I am of the opinion that special schools sometimes inadvertently serve to “segregate” pupils.

If the pupils in special schools are educated to pass grade 12 and qualify to enter the tertiary institutions, there may be a case for some of them to be enrolled or switch to a mainstream school?

But such pupils may require accommodation or support.

Special schools are not supposed to be an arrangement to seem like a ‘dumping ground’ where the rule for a pupil not to repeat a phase more than twice will be applied and the learners will be pushed until they reach a ceiling where they lose hope and drop out from school.

It is concerning that in a special school visited, all 10 pupils failed mathematics literacy.

I have a view that this is not a pupil problem, but rather an educator problem.

One would ask a question as to the role of the department of basic education in training the teachers who teach pupils with disabilities.

What is the support that is provided to these schools?

I argue that in an ideal situation, there should be collaboration between the departments to support students with disabilities.

For instance, parents are supposed to play a huge role in supporting their disabled children.

But as there may be limited awareness on the part of parents or apathy, support for their children is lacking.

In one of the special schools, teachers indicated that some of them pupils (especially those who use sign language) prefer to spend their school holidays with friends as when they are at home, they do not receive any support from parents.

Moreover, some of them parents hand over the responsibility of their children entirely to the school.

We must not blame these parents, particularly if they are ignorant as to the role that they can play to support their disabled children.

Whose responsibility is it to provide awareness on issues like these?

My point is, without a wellco-ordinated and collaborative plan and a thorough execution which includes accountability, pupils with disabilities deserving to be educated will face huge barriers.

The constitution states that every citizen has a right to education, regardless of the barriers.

To me, it seems like pupils are more segregated based on their disabilities than what happened during the apartheid regime, where they were segregated based on their race. Segregation still exists. Pupils in special schools have their own extra mural activities.

They do not mix with pupils from the mainstream schools.

There is no-one who thinks of the impact when they enter tertiary education.

Are they going to have their own activities?

What is inclusion? Moreover, it seems as if there is also structural exclusion as the special schools have limited subjects which carry a very limited choice of careers.

At tertiary institutions the curriculum content is not often prepared with accessibility for students with disabilities in mind.

White Paper 6 that was issued in 2001 stated that special schools should not be abolished.

In the same vein, the paper stated that the quality of education in special schools would be improved.

Did that happen?

If students are still struggling to gain access to higher institutions as of their poor performance, what does that mean?

I believe a review needs to happen in these special schools if we are all sharing the sentiments that students with disabilities should access institutions of higher learning.

This article appeared in The Herald (South Africa) on 10 February 2023 by Nosiphiwo Delubom,  head of the Universal Accessibility and Disability Services (UADS) at Nelson Mandela University. She writes in her own capacity. 

Contact information
Dr Nosiphiwo Delubom
Deputy Director&HoD
Tel: 041 504 4652