Blind kids in the dark

Blind kids in the darkFile Photo.

Blind children have no braille textbooks and are being taught by teachers who cannot mark their work because they don’t know braille.

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National exam papers are also not set in braille, so teachers read out the questions to learners who have to memorise them before they answer them.

Some schools report stories of blind and visually impaired children drowning in unfenced school pools, being injured, robbed and even raped.

Meanwhile, thousands of blind and visually impaired children are simply not attending school at all – in part because of a lack of specialist schools nearby or because their parents believe it is too dangerous for them to attend mainstream schools.

No access

[quote float = right]The problem is mainly with maths, it is not easy having someone reading a maths question to you.'[/quote]Almost 600,000 disabled children have no access to school, according to the Department of Basic Education, and most are either visually or hearing impaired.

These are some of the findings of “Left in the dark”, a report produced by human rights organisation Section27 in collaboration with the SA National Council for the Blind, Blind SA and the SA Braille Authority.

The report concludes that visually impaired children are being denied their constitutional right to education, and head to Parliament today (18 Nov) to present the report to the Portfolio Committee on Education.

“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,” said retired Constitutional Court judge Zac Yacoob, who has been blind from the age of 16 months.

Writing a foreword to the report, Yacoob appealed to government to “treat this matter as one of urgency, and not to let the lives of a whole generation of blind children, mainly African and poor blind children, go to waste”.

Of the 22 schools nationally that cater for visually impaired leaners, 17 have no braille textbooks at all and visually impaired kids have to make notes in class on Perkins machines (braille typewriters) – effectively writing their own books. A shortage of the Perkins machines means that blind learners at some schools write exams in relays.

“We write exactly the same matric exams as sighted learners and so we should have the same materials available to us. I should have textbooks in braille because I am visually impaired,” says Lane Wahl, a Grade 12 learner from Prinshof School for the Blind in Gauteng.

The report says the lack of textbooks “appears to be a complication with a tender released by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) in 2012 for the production of braille textbooks”. The tender had “unrealistic time frames and heavy penalty fees” so it attracted no bidders and nothing has been done since then.

Meanwhile, the DBE recently admitted to a dire shortage of teachers who could read braille at the schools for blind kids: in 2014, there were 39 teachers “without braille qualification but with basic braille”, 124 teachers without any knowledge of braille and 407 teachers who “require grade 2 braille training”.

Dire shortage

The report blames “the cancellation of specialist diplomas in special needs education at teacher training colleges and universities in South Africa” for the fact that most teachers are unfamiliar with braille.

Oswold Feris, a blind learner in Grade 12 at Retlameleng School in the Northern Cape, says: “Teachers must learn to read and write braille so that they can mark our work. They often ask other teachers who might not have the knowledge of the subject and they mark us down.”

Meanwhile, Xoliswa (not her real name), a matric student from Khanyisa School for the Blind in the Eastern Cape, said that not having exam papers in braille “is a huge disadvantage … When I have my question paper in braille, I can read a question again and again until I can properly understand it”.

“The problem is mainly with maths, it is not easy having someone reading a maths question to you,” adds Siphesihle Manqele, a grade 10 learner from Zamokuhle School for the visually impaired.

In a foreword to the report, Yacoob blames the neglect of visually impaired government’s one-size-fits-all approach to educating disabled children, yet the needs of a physically disabled child in a wheelchair are completely different from those of a blind child.

Mobility

“It will be quite useless to provide a blind child with enough human help to get to school and to her desk and leave it at that. A blind child would have to be taught and know braille in order to make notes, to read books, and to write answers to questions. And the material must be available in braille that has the equivalent, appropriately adapted content as that available to a sighted child, so that she can study on an equal and fair basis.”

Huge funding shortages mean that there are an average of 22 kids per class when the recommended norm is eight. A shortage of teachers also meant that only eight of the 22 schools could give blind children mobility training to develop an understanding of space and how to move around.

Elza Veldsman, an occupational therapist at Prinshof School for the Blind in Gauteng, says that “independence for any child is important and more so for a child with a visual disability. It is really important that they do start moving around as soon as possible. We start in Grade R with the little ones… it is important to be able to recognise what’s in class, get around in your class, find your desk, find the toilets, find the playground.”

Turnaround plan

Almost 15 years after the White Paper 6 on education was published, the report finds that no progress has been made to implement the recommended conditional grants to disabled schools to employ specialist staff and get technical support such as voice-activated computers.

The report makes a series of recommendations including an audit of the state of the schools and a turnaround plan that includes braille text books written by experts, braille exam papers and teacher training. – Health-e News.

Edited versions of this story also appeared in The Star, Cape Times, Pretoria News and Mercury newspapers as well as IOL.co.za