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South Africa

A Paradigm Shift: Inclusion in South Africa?

Children around the world between the ages of 3, 4, and 5 are beginning to enter their local school systems, systems that are stressed in many ways, yet are prime places for learning and growth. I am a school psychologist and Board Certified Behavior Analyst working within both the private and public school sectors in the US with children on the autism spectrum.  In 2009, I had the unique opportunity to work in Durban, South Africa with a child I had once worked with in the United States prior to his family’s move.

The education system in South Africa does not operate the same way as the education system in the United States. In the United States, you are guaranteed special education rights — 35 pages of rights to be exact. These 35 pages detail the legal rights that parents and children have and the process by which they should appeal if they experience injustice. In the US, the Americans with Disability Act resulted in profound changes in society’s view of disabilities and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), reauthorized most recently in 2004, supports a free and appropriate education for all students, individualized education plans, the least restrictive environment learning conditions, and federal funding support.

While in South Africa, I found myself asking about the special education rights of South African children with disabilities, and what I found was vague and grim. In Durban (at least when I was there three years ago), there were mainstream schools, private schools, and “special schools.” The “special schools” were for students with disabilities, and what appeared to me to be, in particular, children with significant cognitive and/or physical handicaps. As a parent who has a child who is extremely bright (above average IQ) but also has social difficulties, what are you to do? You fight!

In the South African Constitution, Chapter 2, Bill of Rights 29 states that “everyone has a right to a basic education.” In 1996, South Africa enacted the National Commission on Special Needs and Training and the National Committee on Education Support Services. In 2001, inaugural White Paper 6 addressed some concerns related to education for students with special needs to begin the process of developing full-service schools and college inclusion programs. To my surprise, it addressed the continued segregation within “special schools” on the basis of race and disability. It made little mention of mainstream schools and also stated that “children with disabilities experienced the greatest difficulty in gaining access to education.”  Upon my arrival in 2009, it appeared still that the most tenacious educational approaches were being used at private educational facilities and therefore were funded independently. Parents of children with disabilities had to be very persistent to get their children into private institutions. They had to walk a balance beam to keep their children there, encouraging the schools to continue with parents’ support and educating the system about their children without ruffling feathers and having their children dismissed.

Here in the United States, I don’t consider myself a staunch inclusion advocate but I’m also obviously not against inclusion. I fall somewhere in the middle promoting “functional inclusion.” Dr. Ron Leaf points out some of the mishaps or “delusions of inclusion” in his book, “Sense and Nonsense.” The last thing I want is for a child to learn how to sit quietly and compliantly in the back of a classroom for hours with curriculum that is far removed from his/her needs where the social dynamics at play don’t positively involve the child. Here in the United States, inclusion is a very controversial issue, and may soon (if not already) be the same in South Africa. Inclusion may not always be best for every child on the autism spectrum but it can be beneficial for some children on the spectrum. I strongly believe that social interaction with typically developing peers is important and this claim has been supported in research literature. To find the right balance you need to task analyze and determine what is best for each individual child.

So how can South Africa move forward? It will be a long struggle but I am hopeful about the end result. My experiences, working with this private school in particular, were positive. The teacher wanted support. She also wanted the child with ASD to be in her classroom. She felt that he had a lot to teach the other children as well (this child had an extraordinarily high IQ)! Speaking candidly, compared with many of the classrooms I find myself navigating here in the US, the South African classroom I worked in was actually more open and conducive to interventions (which helped this child with ASD as well as his typically developing peers). The classroom wasn’t as rigid or traditional as many of the classrooms here in the US. Learning took place while the children were standing, singing, playing, and dancing. Instruction occurred all the time, with mixed and varied demands (what every behavior analyst likes to see). This is quite distinct from the sit-and-lecture style found in many Western-based classrooms. The duration of different instructional methods was varied and the classroom functioned much more on a system of positive praise and celebration than on a system of discipline and removal! That said, not all classrooms were created equal. Elective classes, to my surprise, appeared to be run much differently. There were more “traditional” practices and/or the children with disabilities were allowed to meander about the room, disengaged, so long as it wasn’t disrupting the learning of others. My conclusion was that the classroom experience depended on the teacher and his/her ability to instruct, manage, understand, be compassionate, and utilize principles of reinforcement for effective behavior change.

It should be noted that parents of special needs children in South Africa typically pay for “facilitators” for their children. These facilitators are similar to paraprofessionals in the school districts in the US. Facilitators in South Africa are not employed by the school but by the parents of the child with ASD. Although this helps the school, it places yet another financial burden on the family.

My one perspective may be skewed in that I worked alongside parents, speech pathologists, psychologists, occupational therapists, and school teachers and this isn’t the typical approach. Educational choices in South Africa are typically limited to:

  • Expensive private school with additional private adult support,
  • Mainstream public school with little expectations,
  • Homeschooling,
  • Facilities specializing in education of students with ASD, or
  • Institutionalization.

Although there is significant research supporting early intervention for improved outcomes, psychologists and doctors in South Africa are hesitant to diagnose at an early age because the supports appear to be lacking and the outcomes presented by professionals there are bleak. The responsibility to diagnose is going to fall on school systems. Schools are going to face struggles specifically in differentiating instruction for students with ASD, dealing with behavioral difficulties, teaching a social curriculum, and teaching in a consistent manner versus the “eclectic” approach.  Many parents struggle and are left feeling overwhelmed and run-down. White Paper 6 provides some hope by stating that students with average to above average IQs are entitled to attend mainstream schools. Approximately 30% of children with ASD demonstrate average IQs and approximately 3% demonstrate above average IQs (IQ in Children with ASD: data from the Special Needs & Autism Project – SNAP). Where does this leave the other 67%? Nevertheless, the groups that are serious about making a difference will continue to influence the powers that be and provide leadership in the direction of inclusion and full-service schools for ALL children.

Heather Enos-Matheny, Ed.S., BCBA
School Psychologist, NCSP
Board Certified Behavior Analyst

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.

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