The education of children with disabilities risks falling by the wayside during the pandemic

The education of children with disabilities risks falling by the wayside during the pandemic
It may take much longer for children with disabilities to return to school, and therefore highlights the urgency of considering remote teaching and parental support options, say the writers. (Photo: EPA / Nic Bothma)

Children with disabilities in South Africa often live with some of the poorest families, face prejudices as well as discrimination in their communities, and are not prioritised in terms of education. The risk of exclusion is even higher now in this time of crisis.

One of the most devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is the global impact on education and the opportunities for children to learn. Where schools are closed, children are not only deprived of education but also of friendship, social interaction and stimulation. In situations of poverty, children may also lose access to food programmes and social support, leaving them more vulnerable and unprotected. 

Within this situation, children with disabilities are likely to be even more vulnerable. We as the Teacher Empowerment for Disability Inclusion (TEDI) project have, as our specific focus, the development of quality education for children with disabilities and have been working over the past four years to empower teachers with the necessary skills. However, in the Covid-19 pandemic, much of the responsibility for teaching has now shifted to parents and families, and we share our reflections on what this means for children with disabilities. 

Before Covid-19

According to the Department of Basic Education (DBE) in 2015, some 597,753 children with disabilities were out of school. Some parents have had to care for and educate their children at home long before Covid-19 arrived and those who do attend school remain predominantly in segregated special schools. Even here they do not experience success on par with their non-disabled peers. The DBE National Senior Certificate 2018 Examination Report indicates that of the 624,733 learners who wrote matric in 2018, only 3,856 had special educational needs – that is 0,6% of the total, but the national disability prevalence statistic is around 7.5%. 

The Global Campaign for Education reminds us that the United Nation Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 requires parties to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”, including persons with disabilities. However, despite this intention, the goal of universal primary and secondary completion is not on track for 2030, and 50% of children with disabilities in low and middle-income countries were out of school before the pandemic. Its presence has only worsened this already unacceptable situation. 

Children with disabilities often live in some of the poorest families, face prejudices as well as discrimination in their communities, and are not prioritised in terms of education. The risk of exclusion is even higher now in this time of crisis. 

The impact of Covid-19 

In South Africa, provincial education departments, organisations, schools and teachers have been tasked with creating and adapting teaching and learning materials so that learners can complete the school syllabus in their homes while the country is on lockdown. Parents and families are expected to play an active role by monitoring their child’s learning, setting up homeschool programmes and even teaching content. While many resources are now available in the form of guides, YouTube channels and websites, there is very little support to parents and families who have the task of homeschooling their children with disabilities. 

The DBE is proposing that schools will go back from 1 June in a staggered manner, starting with Grade 7 and Grade 12. The DBE has indicated  that the return of learners in special schools will be determined at a later date due to their specific vulnerabilities

Many children who are enrolled in special schools stay in hostels and these would need to be prepared for their return, which would likely cause further delays.

Children who have sensory, physical or intellectual disabilities may require more intensive supervision and care than typically developing children. They may be less able to follow self-directed learning because they are not provided with adaptations such as braille, or South African Sign Language (SASL), which are essential for them to access learning materials. Some have not yet learnt to read by themselves, while others require higher levels of interaction and learning support. 

Disruptions in daily routines can pose a challenge to many children with developmental disabilities and their families. For example, one mother that we spoke to said: “We [parents] both work from home anyway, but he’s usually at school. It’s difficult to work with a child who needs constant attention. He’s not coping very well. His frustration levels are increasing, lack of outings and being indoors is not good. Not being at school, being out of routine, not being stimulated, all these things are adding to his frustration, which increases his levels of aggression, anxiety and of late, depression (he has been crying far more).”

Many children who are enrolled in special schools stay in hostels and these would need to be prepared for their return, which would likely cause further delays. Even prior to Covid-19, there have been numerous issues around the lack of supervision in hostels and inadequate safety measures, with multiple incidents of abuse. In addition, one of the teachers we spoke to said: “Also, when they return there have to be systems in place to protect the learners who suffer from other illnesses. Our learners, generally speaking, have other medical issues.

“But how do you get blind children to use social distancing if touch is basically one of the key ways they connect with their friends? Also, their masks… blind learners may lose their masks easier and if they are not labelled with braille, they will not know whose mask is whose.” 

All of this indicates that it may take much longer for children with disabilities to return to school, and therefore highlights the urgency of considering remote teaching and parental support options. 

Challenges of remote learning for schools and teachers 

A teacher at a school for the deaf highlighted challenges of remote learning for her learners: “We are finding it very difficult to contact all our families. We have managed to get hold of 95 of our 100 families, but some phone numbers don’t exist etc. For deaf kids, the videos etc that we send are data-intensive, and data costs are an issue for most families, hence initially there was not a good response to the work sent.” 

Within this Covid-19 context, teachers worry that children with disabilities are missing out on the important early learning experiences that they need. Special needs educators are well aware of the limited incidental learning (the learning from the environment that typically developing children are exposed to daily – the sights, sounds and concepts that they are immersed in) that children with sensory, physical and intellectual disability experience, and which need to be taught deliberately by skilled professionals. 

It is not clear whether there has been any attempt to supply learners with the necessary IT and assistive technology at their homes, but teachers caution that delivery and care of these devices in the home setting is likely to be highly problematic…

As this teacher says: “Our little kids are missing out on incredibly important language learning opportunities. Most are at home in a family where no one signs and where they are getting no language stimulation – this is devastating for their future academic success.” 

Learners with complex disabilities may be especially disadvantaged as this teacher notes: “There are quite a few learners who are blind because of syndromes, and they will most likely not return this week, or even, worse… until the worst of the pandemic is over, which may be another year or two. This is a tragedy. Our learners are generally already older than the average sighted learner ‘for their grade’. Some turn 21 in matric. This situation will become worse then.”

Given that many children in special schools live far from their school, it can be difficult getting supportive resources to them. In addition to tools for remote learning, they may need specific assistive devices such as a Perkins Brailler or video technology for communicating remotely in SASL. Many children come from less privileged backgrounds and do not own their own assistive devices, and are thus at home without any assistive device support systems. 

It is not clear whether there has been any attempt to supply learners with the necessary IT and assistive technology at their homes, but teachers caution that delivery and care of these devices in the home setting is likely to be highly problematic due to the expense, maintenance requirements and the fact that many parents are unfamiliar with how these devices are supposed to be used, and cannot therefore support their children’s learning.

For children who are blind (of whom the majority are boarders) this means that they cannot access braille, as this teacher notes: “The braille copies of the book are thick and heavy and take up a lot of space. We did not send these books home with them when we thought the ‘lockdown’ would only have been three weeks. Subsequently, none of our braille learners have ‘hard copy’ textbooks.” 

The problems of access to textbooks, devices and data are compounded by the lack of expertise of parents in braille, SASL, alternative and augmentative communication as well as adaptation of materials and behaviour management. Our research in TEDI has shown us that it is an unfortunate reality, even when school is open, that families and professionals do not work together to support learners, and that families have little idea of what goes on in classrooms on a daily basis or even how to support their disabled children with homework. While there are cases of close cooperation between parents and teachers, there are also many, especially where children are in hostels, of parents having little communication with special schools. 

Challenges faced by parents 

Parents of children with developmental disabilities such as Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience difficulty with caregiving, such as this family who told us: “[It is a challenge] not always having someone to watch him when I need to collect his medication or when I have to go get essential supplies. His dad stays with us but works out of the home every day, and the fact that his dad might get exposed unknowingly, passing it on to us is a major concern.” They also experience anxiety about their children’s progress and the impact of prolonged lack of schooling. 

“Regression is a real concern – ASD children are in real danger of regression. That’s the biggest fear, [that] he will lose what he has learnt over the years. ASD traps children in a world of their own – school and routine help to keep them focused on the world around them.”

What has been done 

As observed during the pandemic, people are resilient and resourceful in difficult times, and this is equally true of families with a disabled family member. Thus, one group of parents shared: “We keep him busy by playing his nursery rhymes and stuff that he loves, and I think the fact that we’ve all been at home with him makes him feel safe.” 

There are indications that some parents are able to continue working with their children: “I am a teacher myself so I try to keep up with his routine, and we receive homework from his teacher every week as well as videos when they need to do practicals. We make videos and take pictures so his teacher can see that he is keeping up with his work.” 

It appears that some schools are using WhatsApp to send worksheets, which work well in some cases but are rather haphazard, as noted by this mother: “My son’s teacher has sent 2 worksheets twice during the 7 weeks of lockdown. Other than that, no support at all.” 

At the school for the deaf, they have raised funds to purchase data for families, which has allowed for greater participation in learning. But there is frustration that the work that can be covered is nowhere near what they would be able to do in a day at school, bearing in mind the difficulty that such children experience with reading.

Teachers at another special school feel as though the school management is going through the motions of providing online learning, but not addressing the barriers that prevent teachers and families from implementing the prescribed learning. This can appear as an attitude of complacency and “let’s just wait and see”, and there is a feeling that learners and families need to be better equipped and supported. 

An example of the complexity of online learning facing a child who has low vision is explained by a teacher we spoke to who has adapted her way of testing to accommodate her students: “All four of our matriculants have access to cellphones. I sent one braille book with the three who take English First Additional Language: their drama. So, I am writing questions in 20 bold font and then taking photos of the questions and WhatsApp them the questions. They then write their answers, take photos and WhatsApp it back. The progress is slow, but they have been quite good about doing the work and sending it back.”

In Cape Town, the High Spirits Skills Training Centre for the Intellectually Challenged prepared activity packs which were distributed through the food parcel distribution network. These included the paper, activity pages, colouring-in pages and other play materials. Instructions were shared in hardcopy with the activity pack, and also via the school’s WhatsApp group. They are currently developing video tutorials on the organisation’s Facebook page. 

What is needed 

How then can we give these learners better experiences and more opportunities to continue to access education? Overall, the recommendations that apply to typically developing children apply to children with disabilities – reach out to teachers, establish routines, deal with fears and anxieties about the pandemic and other good advice that is offered on home teaching websites. 

Beyond this, what is needed for educating children with disabilities from home, in a remote learning space, is a rigorous plan of action to facilitate more parent and family empowerment in homeschooling. This can include having webinars, websites, support groups, newsletters etc that can support and help manage the parents or families who often feel vulnerable and isolated in this context.

We would also encourage networking between teachers and parents to discuss how to adapt learning to the needs of their children, and we suggest that now is an opportunity to extend the collaboration between home and school that has been so sadly lacking in special schools. 

Teachers should focus on families understanding how to enhance their child’s learning with less of an emphasis on specific curricular activities. It is also clear that there is a need for community-based disability practitioners who are well-placed to foster links between the school and home, and would be able to assist parents with adapting materials to their child’s needs, as well as behaviour management and therapeutic skills. A further resource would be specially adapted materials that can be found on websites such as those on the International Association for the Scientific Study of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities website.

After Covid-19

While we focus on learners in special schools in this discussion, there is an urgent need to pay heed to the call for an international pursuit of equitable and inclusive education for all children. The current inequity related to remote learning should make us aware of how children with disabilities need to be considered not as an add on or exceptional group, but as part of the continuum of quality and inclusive education during and beyond this crisis. 

Hopefully this experience will act as a catalyst for the future in developing the online and remote learning space that can complement the traditional learning space to provide more opportunities to engage with children for more comprehensive and effective learning – not only at school, but also at home. This is especially pertinent for children with disabilities who are not always able to access more formal educational institutions in South Africa, and who have to rely on the home environment for any form of education. Closer collaboration between families and educators is vital to finding workable solutions for all concerned. 

Finally, we conclude by recognising the opportunities that Covid-19 offers to promote inclusive education. These are opportunities to increase stability/routine, opportunities to increase access for students who have never attended school, and opportunities to increase equity and inclusion. DM

Additional reading and courses:

TEDI offers online courses for teachers that have useful information for parents as well. These include: 

Disability Inclusion in Education:

Educating Deaf Children:;

Severe to Profound Intellectual Disability:

Teaching children with Visual Impairment:

We are also in the process of adapting these materials for parents in an interactive PDF that would include text and links to YouTube videos. 

Associate Professor Judith McKenzie is head of the Division of Disability Studies at the University of Cape Town and principal investigator for the TEDI project. Dr Richard Vergunst, Chantal Samuels and Thandi Henkeman are employed in the TEDI project.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz