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Education for Special Needs Learners

5 July, 2016

Suzanne EdmundsWatching the destruction of schools this year and reading the comprehensive report “The right to basic education” published in Sangonet 12th May 2016 which reports on the burning of schools in Vuwani Limpopo during this past year there is a single thought that goes through my head:
What about learners who can’t attend schools because there are none that are suitable!
In the last few years Project Build has been fortunate enough to raise funds to do extensive building at schools for learners with very special needs. It has sensitized me to how few dedicated schools are available for these young learners. I have also learned what infrastructure is most suitable.
I searched the internet to find articles which have relevance. I found articles on the issue of inclusive education – schools where children with special needs are absorbed into the mainstream. There are interesting credible academic papers founded on good research which support this concept as the way to go. The need for dedicated schools is ignored in the current articles. (see S. Afr. J. educ. Vol. 34n.2 Pretoria Jun.2014. The Challenges of Realizing Inclusive education in South Africa. D Dononhue and J Bornman)
I am not an educator, I lead a specialized building NGO so I would not consider commentating on inclusive education except from a view of physically accommodating learners with special needs. This is our field of expertise.
When building for special need learners so much is different from mainstream. One can certainly not accommodate these special people in classes where there are anything from 50 to 70 learners in a class and one teacher per class. It has nothing to do with intellect but how can children with speech and hearing or sight difficulties can ever hope to get enough attention from the educator that is needed. Can you imagine a stressed educator whose resources are already stretched dealing with these needs.. Specialist therapy rooms are needed to accommodate social workers, occupational therapists, speech and hearing therapists and physiotherapists . The classrooms need to be large for wheelchairs and other aids, sometimes with special toilets and ablution facilities. And yes, different does often mean intellectually challenged though not necessarily.
There needs to be special exercise equipment in adequate playgrounds. And yes, hostel facilities. Many of the learners come from very far distances. And this in a way is the very nub of the problem.
There are relatively few specially designed schools and educators with specialist training, I’m not sure if there are specialist therapy posts. But when I talk to my anecdotal sources I learn of the shortage of schools dedicated to special needs, or if there are schools the specialist facilities are lacking. However it is reported in SANEWS.gov.za of November 2015 author More Matshediso that there 453 special schools in SA and 18 under construction. The report closes with a quote from Thenjiwe Ndebele in her capacity as the Chairperson of Self Advocates from Down Syndrome SA. She pleads that all children with disabilities be given access to education so that they can earn a bit of independence “I may have a disability but I have many abilities. We matter. Education is important to us” said Ndebele
Every year on MANDELA DAY , Project Build takes corporate volunteers to a school to beautify the buildings. It takes a lot of planning but worth every resource we put into the event. This year we have chosen a school with special needs. It is a school we have built at before. It is a school with a dedicated curriculum and wonderful educators helping young people who would otherwise languish at home hardly attended to, take their productive place in society. Once we have left the school on that day it will look really nice. A place that will lift the morale of educators, learners and parents.

So again I ask myself, is it fair that schools are being burnt when there are so many school age children who cannot access what the constitution of the country guarantees – an education. We will dedicate our MANDELA DAY to these young people.

SUZANNE EDMUNDS
CEO
PROJECT BUILD TRUST – DURBAN

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