LEFT IN THE DARK: Education system is NOT effective for visually impaired learners

Blind and partially sighted learners are failed by the education system – not accessing the tools they need such as braille textbooks, trained teachers and many other unique, but critical support measures. The failure by government to meet their constitutional obligations is condemning children, who all have the ability to be productive members of society, to a life of dependence and unnecessary suffering.

These are the findings of an investigation by SECTION27 into all of the 22 public special schools for the visually impaired in South Africa.

The report produced in collaboration with the South African National Council for the Blind (SANCB), the South Africa Braille Authority (SABA) and Blind SA was unveiled in Cape Town on Wednesday 18 November 2015.

The team from SECTION27 and its partners led by former Constitutional Court Judge Zak Yacoob who is himself blind called for the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to provide a complete and holistic plan for the turnaround of the education system for visually impaired learners.

In order to compile the report, SECTION27 visited and interviewed principals, teachers and learners at all 22 schools for visually impaired learners in late 2014 and early 2015. Some of the extensive findings include:

  • Access to Braille learning materials is a persistent problem. After a failed tender process in 2012, caused by the DBE’s own lack of expertise, it is yet to produce or fund the production of a single Braille textbook. Studying without books is not a reality any child should have to face. Textbooks matter. As a principal at one of these schools told SECTION27 “we are also a school, we also need books”
  • Schools receive inadequate support from provincial and district departments of education who frequently do not understand what is required for the education of visually impaired learners;
  • Schools receive inadequate funding – many cannot even afford electricity bills and other necessities for the entire year never mind expensive but essential assistive devices;
  • Teachers are deployed to schools without any knowledge of education of visually impaired learners. Most teachers teaching blind learners cannot read Braille at all and still more who can read “elementary Braille” cannot read “contracted Braille” which learners are supposed to cope with by grade 4;
  • Teachers are not sufficiently supported by necessary non-educator posts such as social workers, house mothers, occupational therapists and specialist positions relevant to these schools such as orientation and mobility practitioners, braillists and Braille instructors. One school in Limpopo has 60 vacancies for support staff; and
  • Schools lack sufficient computers and technological assistive devices of even the most basic kinds. Many, for example, do not have enough working “Perkins Braillers” which educators describe as “a pen and paper for a blind learner”.

In its report to Parliament, SECTION27 made several recommendations including that the DBE implement its own policy outlined in its 2001 Education White Paper 6 to set up a conditional grant aimed at capacitating schools for learners with disabilities. Further recommendations included:

  • Gathering accurate information on the number of learners who are within and outside the schools system. The Department of Basic Education has estimated that over half a million (597 593) children with disabilities may not have access to schools but estimates are unreliable and vary from different sources.
  • Clarifying the legal status of White Paper 6 and reviewing the policy as a matter of urgency;
  • Providing access to Braille and Large Print Learning Materials including textbooks, workbooks and teachers guides; and
  • Building better relationships between schools and district and provincial departments of education.

In his assessment of White Paper 6, former Constitutional Court Judge, Justice Zak Yacoob said, “The policy does not deal separately and in detail with the unique special essential needs of children who have specific disabilities – needs must be met as prerequisites if the child concerned is to have the smallest chance of making it on this earth.”

Yacoob called for the national Department of Basic Education and each provincial department, at the very least, to have within its inclusive education directorate, a section concerned with the education of children with each disability.

No vision in planning fails visually impaired

Accessible PDF of ‘Left in the Dark’

For more information contact:

Ntsiki Mpulo, SECTION27, 082 782 7143, mpulo@section27.org.za