Facilitating educational access for children with learning disabilities: The implementation of inclusive education in South Africa

Master Thesis


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Children with disabilities have long experienced barriers to equal education due to discrimination. When the United Nations declared education a fundamental human right for every child in 1948, UNESCO-led conferences began to endorse campaigns worldwide that encouraged governments to reform their segregated education systems and promote the inclusion of children with disabilities in formal and mainstream schools. Following the demise of apartheid in 1994, the newly elected democratic government declared education a fundamental human right of all South Africans. The Department of Education adopted an inclusive education approach that intended to dismantle the segregated education system that historically discriminated against children with disabilities. The department introduced the Education White Paper 6 in 2001 to establish an inclusive system that would accommodate children with diverse learning needs in ordinary classrooms. However, children with disabilities are still subjected to exclusion from ordinary schools, while thousands more are out of school. This is especially true for children with learning disabilities because they are considered ‘stupid' and uneducable. This study sought to examine the extent to which the implementation of policy on inclusive education, namely Education White Paper 6, has facilitated access to mainstream schooling for children with learning disabilities. The study was based on collecting data from a sample of full-service public and independent schools as well as special schools in Gauteng. The study found that the implementation of inclusive education can claim certain achievements such as the adoption of alternative learning programmes in schools to accommodate diverse learners, the development of good inter-relations between pupils with learning disabilities and their non-disabled peers in schools, and the establishment of well-functioning and supportive District- Based Support Teams in some school districts. However, some factors hinder the successful inclusion of children with learning disabilities in ordinary schools, which include a lack of teachers and government officials sufficiently trained in special and inclusive education, as well as large class sizes due to schools not having enough classrooms. Negative attitudes and cultural denialism towards children with learning disabilities as well as financial constraints were also found to be factors that prevent these children from attending school like their non-disabled peers. Other factors that continue to impede access to equal education for children with disabilities are misdiagnosis and incorrect placement in special schools when they are actually candidates for ordinary schools, as well as the lack of sufficient national information campaigns to educate the public about inclusive education. The study found that although there have been efforts to implement inclusive education in ordinary schools and admit children with learning disabilities, progress remains slow due to several school-level and cultural barriers.