Human Rights Watch's report on education for children with disabilities, "Complicit in Exclusion", contains some damning findings. 

An estimated half-a-million children with disabilities have been shut out of South Africa's education system, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Tuesday 18 August at a joint event with South Africa’s Human Rights Commission.

The 94-page report, "'Complicit in Exclusion’: South Africa’s Failure to Guarantee Inclusive Education for Children with Disabilities," found that South Africa has failed to guarantee the right to education for many of the country’s children and young adults due to widespread discrimination against children with disabilities in enrollment decisions. Human Rights Watch research in five out of South Africa’s nine provinces showed that children with disabilities face discriminatory physical and attitudinal barriers, often beginning early in children’s lives when government officials classify them according to their disabilities.

"The South African government needs to admit that it is not providing quality education to all of its children – in fact, no schooling at all to many who have disabilities." 

Elin Martínez, children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, and author of the report. 


Among other things, the government uses the majority of its already limited resources for learners with disabilities for special schools, to the detriment of inclusive education. 

The referrals system needlessly forces children to wait for up to four years at care centers or at home for placement in a special school. 

In some cases, children suffered physical violence and neglect in schools.

Children with disabilities enter the system much later on average than children without disabilities, and often drop out or finish school without successfully completing basic education due to the poor quality of education at many mainstream and special schools.

Many adolescents with disabilities lack basic life skills that should be taught in school.

Human Rights Watch  found that children with disabilities who attend special schools often must pay fees that children without disabilities do not.

Government has not met its own universal access to education goals. 


Government should adopt a new policy and legislation to require all provincial governments and schools to ensure that all learners with disabilities can complete basic education, and that they are given an equal opportunity to go to mainstream schools that are accessible and free of violence, Human Rights Watch said.

Government should ensure that all children with disabilities and their families are adequately consulted before making decisions on a school placement. To comply with its international obligations, the government should remove school fees and other financial barriers that prevent children with disabilities from going to school.

The government's approach and shift towards a truly inclusive education system should also be both short and longer term.

In the short-term, the government should also improve the quality of education in special schools to ensure the current generation of children who want and need their services can benefit from education on an equal basis with students in mainstream schools.

In the medium to longer term, the government should ensure that students with disabilities can transition from special to mainstream and full-service schools. 

Creating new special schools for current and new generations of students with disabilities will not solve South Africa's current challenges and may even exacerbate many violations of the right to education of children with disabilities outlined in this report. The government should now move beyond statements of commitment to real, inclusive implementation.

"The current system is ad hoc and expensive, and isolates children with disabilities from other learners. As a result, the government is failing hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities, violating its own policies and laws.”
Elin Martínez, children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, and author of the report.

Pic: Human Rights Watch