Special needs Education - Is South Africa doing enough?

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The Greek biographer of the ancient philosophers, Diogenes Laertius said: “The foundation of every state, is the education of its youth.”

Most people would agree that education is the cornerstone of any civilisation and the only way to ensure a prospering, developing nation. However, a one-size-fits-all approach to education would be totally fruitless, especially when it comes to those with special needs.

Special needs education is defined as the practice of educating learners with special needs in a way that addresses their individual differences and needs (Wikipedia). A more individual approach, and in many cases adapted equipment, materials and settings, often allow these students to achieve a higher success rate in the classroom than what they might have achieved in a typical classroom environment.

Common special needs include learning disabilities, physical disabilities, emotional and behavioural disorders and developmental disabilities.

Sadly in South Africa, these special schools are limited, particularly in rural areas. According to the website, Independent Living, almost 70% of children with disabilities of school-going age are presently out of school. Consequently, illiteracy and low skills are high among adults with disabilities, which results in high levels of unemployment.

A quick search on the website, schoolguide.co.za, reveals that there are 448 special needs schools in South Africa, mostly catering for general special needs. The highest concentration of special needs schools are in Gauteng (155), with the Western Cape (85) and KwaZulu-Natal (79) second and third respectively. The other provinces have much less special education institutions with Mpumalanga (20) and the Northern Cape (10) having the least. The North West province have no special needs schools listed.

South Africa has adopted an inclusive education policy aimed at addressing the barriers to learning in the education system. The policy is explained in Education White Paper 6: Special Needs Education. However, the country still faces huge challenges with regard to the lack of teachers’ skills and knowledge in differentiating the curriculum to address different needs.

An article in the African Journal of Disability maintains that the first step in addressing special needs education in South Africa, is for teachers to address the range of diverse learning needs in their classrooms. This will require new skills, training and support from the educational system. It also proposes a new approach to educational design as represented by the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) model. The UDL model deals with designing all aspects of the learning environment to address the wide-ranging variation of student needs that exist in an inclusive educational system.

It is clear that there are many thoughts and many ideas around special education in South Africa. Educators, specialists and government must work together to ensure that no South African falls between the cracks of a lacking education system.

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