SECTION27 presentation at South African National Council for the Blind Biennial Conference (14-16 October 2015)
SLSJ Research Fellow, SECTION27
- Greetings to all present at this prestigious and important South African National Council for the Blind Biennial Conference. Thank you for the opportunity to share with you some of the work that SECTION27 has been doing in collaboration with the SANCB, the South African Braille Authority, Blind SA and most importantly visually impaired learners and staff at the 22 special schools for learners with visual impairments in South Africa.
- such as the Natal Blind and Deaf society which facilitated finding a school for me and as a result I did not have to wait very long to find a school which could accommodate me. I completed grade 12 in Arthur Blaxall School for the blind in 2006 and fortunately was accepted to the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in 2007. In UKZN I studied and completed a Bachelor of Social Sciences (BSS), a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) and a Bachelor of Social Sciences Honours in Public Policy. After graduating, this year I joined SECTION27 at which I currently work as a research fellow.
- SECTION27 is a public interest law centre that seeks to use advocacy, research and litigation to protect and promote human One of SECTION27’s focus areas is on the constitutional right to basic education. Since 2012 SECTION27 has been focussing on access to quality education for children with disabilities. In addition to our work in trying to improve education for learners with visual impairments, SECTION27 has also been particularly active in a rural area in northern KwaZulu-Natal called Manguzi trying to get learners access to appropriate special and full service schools. We are also part of a team, including various members of the Campaign on the Right to Education for Children with Disabilities, which is writing a critique of the Department of Basic Education’s 2015 progress report on the implementation of White Paper 6 on Inclusive Education.
- It is an honour to be afforded this opportunity to present the journey of the production of SECTION27’s much anticipated report on the state of special schools for visually impaired learners in South Africa, which will be released next month and is revealingly titled “Left in the Dark: Failure to Provide Access to Quality Education to Blind and Partially Sighted Learners in South Africa”. The report is special to me having been involved in its production and being the product of one of the 22 schools documented in the report.
- It is common knowledge that apartheid special schools were organised according to two segregating criteria: race and disability. The schools which were then for white learners only were better resourced and the few special schools which were for black learners were poorly resourced. Even then, black learners still had to leave their families to attend poorly resourced schools and stay in terrible conditions in hostels in pursuit of some form of education.
- This partially changed after 1994, with South Africa moving towards non-racialism and poor black children for the first time being afforded the opportunity to attend better-resourced special schools. The influx of poor, blind black children in an education system originally designed for the few has contributed toward the systematic failures observed in the report. I am amongst those who benefited from one of the better-resourced schools but am now saddened to have witnessed the genesis of the resignation of adequately skilled teachers; the dearth of braille material and equipments; and the deteriorating conditions in hostels.
- With this background I will now take the opportunity to explain the processes and procedures resulting to the report’s production and how SECTION27, in consultation with the SANCB, SABA and Blind SA, will use it as an advocacy tool to improve the quality of education available to learners with visual impairments throughout South Africa: rich and poor, black and white.
- Process of Drafting the Report: Correspondence with the DBE and Schools Visits
- Since 2012, SECTION27 has been writing to the Department of Basic Education regarding the condition of education for visually impaired learners. To begin with the letters related mostly to braille training for teachers, availability of braille textbooks and workbooks and the employment of Orientation and Mobility Practitioners. After little gain was made through this type of consistent correspondence and various meetings over a period of two years, in August 2014, in a meeting with the SANCB, SABA and Blind SA it was decided that SECTION27 should visit all 22 special schools for visually impaired learners in South Africa and prepare a report.
- In late 2014 and early 2015, myself, other SECTION27 employees and my colleague Tim Fish Hodgson, who is a Legal Researcher tasked with writing the report, visited 20 of the 22 schools for visually impaired learners across the country. The schools we did not visit were Rivoni in Limpopo and Open Air in KwaZulu-Natal but we managed to obtain the information from these schools telephonically. We interviewed principals and teachers, assuring them that their contributions would be anonymous – many indeed indicated that they feared victimisation and requested anonymity as a condition for speaking to us. Though we initially anticipated that the report would focus on the availability of braille learning materials and braille literacy of teachers this was soon shown to be an inadequate approach. It became apparent after our first few visits that there were many other issues that had to be investigated relating to the education of visually impaired learners and indeed that the problems were not only specific and isolated but systemic and widespread.
- After completing our first draft of the report we realised that the voices of learners were necessary for the purposes of the report: it is crucial that learners themselves were given the opportunity to express their frustrations with the challenges they face every day at school. This required that we conduct telephonic interviews with learners of senior grades asking them about their experiences in their respective schools. We also ultimately called each school to verify all the information that we had received on our visits several months before. Little had changed in any of them.
- Summary of the Report’s Findings
- Learners with visual impairments at different schools in different provinces throughout the country describe the circumstances in which they study as “depressing”, “frustrating”, “sad”, “disadvantaging”, “cruel”, “upsetting” and “unfair”. Many of them agreed to have their names included in the report in order to make a strong statement about the need for urgent improvement in their learning conditions.
- Simply put, the information we gathered during our visits and telephonic interviews indicate that the conditions in visually impaired schools are in a state of crisis. Their rights are being violated on a daily basis. The problems faced by the 22 schools are largely as a result of the systematic failures by the Department of Basic Education to take drastic measures to ensure that the already existing visually impaired schools are adequately resourced or implement even the basic targets of White paper 6. These include, for example, aims to strengthen special schools and the setting up of a conditional grant intended to finance many of the improvements to the education system for children with disabilities contemplated by White Paper 6.
- The systemic failures can be partially attributed to the dearth of adequately experienced and qualified personnel within the management of special needs education in the Department of Education nationally, provincially and in Special Needs Education Units on a district level. Experienced teachers, some who have been teaching visually impaired learners for up to 35 years, consistently told us that most of their district managers did not have any expertise or understanding of what is required for education of visually impaired learners. There is also a clear link between these failures and inadequate budgeting. This is confirmed by a piece of expert research commissioned by SECTION27 on budgeting for inclusive education in South Africa which is included as an annexure to our report. Most schools complained of subsidies being insufficient to meet the day to day running of the school and inadequately tailored to the special needs of schools for learners with visual impairments. As a result, many schools particularly in remote rural areas have to raise funds from school fees which negatively impact on learners who often come from poor families.
- In addition to these systemic issues, the report reveals and details a multitude of specific serious challenges. Due to time constraints I will not deal with all of them here, but the following are worth noting as examples:
- Learner Teacher Support Materials: Limited availability to textbooks, workbooks and teachers’ guides in accessible formats, including Braille and large print. As a result of a failed tender process in 2012, there are presently no textbooks at all available to the significant majority of schools.
- Capacity of educators: Many teachers at schools for the blind are not literate in Braille, in elementary Braille, and even more are not literate in contracted Braille. Teachers are appointed to schools through a redeployment process which does not require any expert knowledge on the education of visually impaired learners, and most provincial departments of education provide no training for teachers, who are forced to learn on the job.
- Staff provisioning: There is a severe problem with staff shortages in respect of both teaching and non-teaching staff.
- Orientation and Mobility instruction: Learners with visual impairments at many schools do not have access to orientation and mobility training, which is paramount to their education and independence. Learners therefore learn to find their way around by “bumping and falling”.
- Assistive Devices: Some schools do not have access to basic equipment such as brailing machines and computers with appropriate software for use by visually impaired persons. There are significant challenges with the adaptation and brailing of some standardised examination and test papers. Many schools report that compulsory test and exam papers arrive late and/or in print. The result is that either visually impaired learners do not write certain standardised assessments, to their detriment, or they write exams in non-ideal circumstances, such as having teachers read questions to them.
- With all of this in mind, I now turn to the way forward: how can this report be best used by SECTION27, the SANCB, SABA and Blind SA in advocating for the improved access to quality education for visually impaired learners in South Africa?
The Way Forward: Presentation to the Portfolio Committee for Basic Education
- The strategy adopted by SECTION27 in all of its work areas is to use litigation as a last resort to enforce rights. There are many effective ways that pressure groups such as SECTION27 employ to force the government to engage with people and meet their demands. We assist communities to mobilise and speak with one voice in the language of rights; we join partnerships and arrange campaigns, demonstrations and pickets; we conduct research, make submissions and write letters to relevant government departments; and after much deliberation and the instruction of clients, sometimes, we litigate. But litigation must be approached with caution.
- First, we don’t use litigation as our first option because often litigation, though capable of addressing a specific isolated issue does not or cannot address the broad picture such as the systematic problems we observe in special schools for visually impaired learners. Even if a specific issue might be easy for government to resolve the broad picture may remain the same after successful litigation. We see this for example, in our work with children with disabilities in Manguzi, where though we have succeeded through threats of litigation to have 14 learners placed in Sisizakele Special School, the systemic problems both of access to appropriate schools and quality of schooling for children with disabilities continue throughout the Umkhanyakude District.
- Second, court processes are lengthy and consume a lot of resources and time. The challenge is that the government has the resources readily available to even unnecessarily defend cases for years and adopt all sorts of delaying tactics. Perhaps an example of the dreadful side of litigation is SECTION27’s current experience from a case in which, on behalf of Basic Education For All, a social movement in Limpopo, we have taken the government to court for access to textbooks. Despite three High Court judgments in our favour and three years having passed, it is evident that textbooks have not yet been distributed to all learners in Limpopo despite the undertakings of the government to do so and court orders compelling them too. Indeed three years down the line BEFA and SECTION27 will again appear in the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein in November. Yet again, the government will dispute the simple argument of BEFA and SECTION27 that each child has the right to a textbook of their own in each subject which they study.
- Third, so that by the time we get to litigation we have accumulated enough evidence to indicate before the courts that we have exhausted all avenues to engage the government and that the government had not paid attention to people’s demands. If this has not been done Court’s may not come to the aid of those who approach them sometimes, even if their rights are being violated.
- For all of these reasons on the 29th of June this year we met and briefed the SANCB, SABA and Blind SA on the findings of the report and recommended a course of action. In the meeting we agreed that the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee for Basic Education was the first appropriate platform to present the report. The reason for this is that the Portfolio Committee is the point where the executive is ultimately held accountable by Parliament. The executive is the administrative arm of government with its ministers and officials for each department of government. Parliament is the legislative arm of government where representatives elected during elections sit and make laws. Parliament is also responsible in terms of the Constitution to hold the executive accountable for the fulfilment of its constitutional duties. Representatives of different political parties engage with reports and submissions before parliamentary portfolio committees and can ask questions directly to the executive in these public platforms. Media and civil society can attend these sessions and put direct questions to both the Portfolio Committee and the National Department of Basic Education.
- We therefore wrote to the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee, Honourable Ms Nomalungelo Gina requesting an audience to present the report. We met with her on the 17th of August at Parliament to brief her on the report and the purposes of the report. She was ultimately happy about the initiative and committed that we would have the audience before the end of the year: despite an already full calendar she promised to make space for us because of the importance of the issue. She requested the draft of the report of which we submitted to her before the end of August. We currently await her response and have requested a response by the 14th of October and a hearing during November. Those paying close attention to their calendars will keenly observe that this deadline falls during the course of this Biennial Conference. We have agreed with the SANCB, SABA and Blind SA in a meeting in September that if we do not receive an adequate response the report will be released in a SECTION27 organised press conference in Cape Town in November.
- Conclusion: Hoping and Taking Action
- I mentioned earlier that I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to attend Arthur Blaxall, one of the then best visually impaired schools at the time when it was entering the phase of deterioration. I recall that we had maths and science teachers and a physiology laboratory where we could literally feel models of each body part. A few years later, when I got to Grade 9, there was no teacher to teach us higher grade maths in Braille. Currently, the few experienced teachers left in the school whom we interviewed complain of the younger teachers refusing to even make efforts to learn Braille. They complain of inadequate resources allocated to the school and of the school gone “to the dogs”.
- Justice Zak Yacoob who also attended Arthur Blaxall perhaps decades before me, and has agreed to assist in presenting the report to the Portfolio committee says in a foreword to the report that “I have had the privilege and the benefit of being educated at a school where the necessary facilities were largely available. I am pained to say that if the facilities at the school at which I was a pupil had been as paltry as in most of the schools described in the report, I would never even have completed school successfully. I therefore make a humble personal appeal to all the concerned authorities to treat this matter as one of urgency, and not to let the lives of a whole generation of blind children, mainly African and poor blind children, go to waste.”
- Moving forward, SECTION27 will, working with partner organisations such as the SANCB, SABA and Blind SA and the community of visually impaired people in South Africa, use the report as a tool to advocate for the right to quality basic education of visually impaired children in South Africa. The future of education and success of visually impaired learners is at stake. When asked whether the current schooling system has prepared him for his own future after school, Hlulani Malungani a totally blind grade 11 learner at Rivoni School for the Blind honestly said “reality says no, but I remain hopeful.”
- It is upon us, the current generation, that we do all possible to protect the future of those who come in the next generation. We too must continue to hope with Hlulani. But we must do more. We must act. SECTION27 has committed to investing our time, resources and expertise to the cause of social justice and the achievement of fundamental human rights. We regard the right to education as cardinal to achieving other rights. We hope also that by highlighting the problems in the education system for visually impaired learners throughout the country that we can use this campaign as a platform to vindicate the right to basic education for all children with disabilities. In so doing, we hope to assist the government in fulfilling the constitutional promise to “free the potential” of each person regardless of race, gender or disability.