Left in the Dark, a new report on the failure to provide quality education to blind and partially blind students, will be discussed in Parliament on Wednesday. GREG NICOLSON unpacks the failures and changes needed if visually impaired learners are to have a future.
“Reality says no, but I remain helpful,” says Rivonia School for the Blind student Hlulani Malungani when asked if he feels prepared for the future.
Released this week, Section27’s Left in the Dark investigates the 22 government schools across the country that teach blind and visually impaired learners. Researched and prepared between September 2014 and this August, it finds common threads of failure that violate the students’ basic rights to education, equality and dignity.
“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,” writes former Constitutional Court Justice Zak Jacoob, who became blind when he was 16-months-old, in the forward. He called for the issues to be treated with urgency “and not to let the lives of a whole generation of blind children, mainly African and poor blind children, go to waste”.
Across the 22 schools, the report found students and teachers lack adequate learning material in braille. The department of basic education should have provided every learner with a textbook for every subject, but 17 of the 22 schools said they have never had access to a single braille textbook for Curriculum Assessment Policy Standards (CAPS) subjects.
“It is frustrating because we are left behind and we feel that we do not have enough information because we only have notes. I would like to have all my textbooks in braille,” said Oswold Feris, a grade 12 student in Retlameleng, Northern Cape.
A tender issued in 2012 to produce textbooks in braille attracted no bidders, says the report, as the time frames were too short and the penalties too high. To study, students end up sharing outdated textbooks. The department provides workbooks for Grade R through to Grade 9 students, which are meant to supplement textbooks, but they were also found to be under-supplied at many schools. To help students cope, many of the teachers provide notes in braille, significantly adding to their workload. While 21 of the 22 schools employed at least one totally blind educator, none of the schools interviewed had teacher guides in braille.
“We are also a school. We also need books,” said a principal who wanted to remain anonymous.
Schools are also facing severe budget shortages. “Section27’s interviews reveal that there is unanimous agreement from the perspective of schools that the subsidies provided by the department of basic education are insufficient for the operation of schools for the visually impaired, given their different needs from mainstream schools,” reads the report. “Many schools note, instead of providing extra support, the department of basic education assumes that schools will be able to raise a percentage of its budget from fees.”
As most of their learners are indigent, the schools fall short on fee targets.
The amount of teachers employed is also a problem. One school has seen its student-to-educator ratio rise from 5:1 to 20:1. The department determines a school’s number of educators based on a weighted average but this calculation, says the report, don’t take into account the different disabilities the schools deal with. They often double or triple up as schools for the visual- and hearing-impaired while some also deal with other disabilities. Without enough staff specialised in each disability, educators end up teaching both visual- and hearing-impaired students.
“Unfortunately, the reality faced at schools for the visually impaired throughout the country is that many educators are not even literate in contracted and/or uncontracted braille,” the report notes on teacher training. “As there is no longer any professional educators’ qualification which is specifically focused on the education of learners who are visually impaired, educators generally arrive at school without any knowledge of braille at all.”
Neither the national nor provincial departments of education have a detailed and continuously implemented policy on braille training, it continues.
Section27 attorney Kate Paterson says there are schools where visually impaired students can receive quality education, but those are the expensive schools. “Every single poor blind person just has no hope at the moment,” she says. The system at the public schools are largely held together by committed teachers and principals trying to make the situation work despite the challenges, but the system fails most students.
“First of all most of them don’t pass matric, so there’s absolutely no chance of employment for a blind person who hasn’t passed matric. What it means is that they go back into the communities that they have come from, because most of these schools are boarding schools,” says Paterson. “They go back; they live at home and they have no way of contributing to society at all and it’s all because of a sensory disability… These are sensory disabilities that don’t effect the way that you think. You can still be a contributing person in society who, like Zak Jacoob, who can change things in society, who can make things better, but instead these people are relegated. They’re hidden.”
The report makes 13 recommendations. It suggests the department of basic education audit the schools to ensure information is available to improve education; it wants the status of the department’s White Paper 6, which deals with visually impaired learners and has been in place since 2001 but mostly remains unimplemented, to be clarified. A plan needs to be created to turnaround the situation and national and provincial departments need to improve communication with the schools. In accordance with the White Paper, the report recommends new conditional grant funding and more funding for braille learning materials. Among other recommendations, it also suggests the elimination of school fees, provision of access to braille, and the appointment of an expert to adapt the curriculum into braille.
Unless the department of basic education acknowledges the failures of educating visually impaired learners and comprehensively addresses the concerns, the futures of many students will continue to be sacrificed. DM