For the past two months I have been writing about the lives of teachers and their students from across the globe (for a project called #TeacherTuesday). All these stories have been highlighting the complexities in classrooms and policies that often underpin what happens in the classroom. Most of the reflections I’ve written for #TeacherTuesday have largely questioned the notion of access to education: inclusion and exclusion. The question of equal education and equal opportunities within education has been the golden thread over the past few weeks. And more importantly, thinking through ways in which education can be a tool for changing lives, especially for those who are often poor or marginalised.
When I read about Sitira from Indonesia I realised that my view about inclusion and exclusion in schools still needs to be challenged. Sitira is a Special Need Education Coordinator at Tunas Harapan Elementary School in Bandung City. There are 672 children in her school and 44 of them have a disability. She reflects that there are many challenges she faces in her school. Dealing with the negative perceptions about people with disabilities means that their education is often not taken seriously and inadequately funded. Many do not get the skills to work or study further once they have completed secondary school.
The word disability is often seen as synonymous with abnormal. In Xhosa people with disabilities or perceived as “special needs” are referred to as “Isidalwa” (literal translation, a creature). This word bothers me because there is a lack of recognition of the humanity of people who do not meet the standards of what it means to be normal. In Grahamstown there’s a school that caters to children who have special needs (physical and mental barriers to learning); the school is called Kuyasa Special Schhol. While I lived in Grahamstown and observed and worked in mainstream, township schools I often heard teachers referring to deviant or unacceptable behaviour amongst their “normal” students “wenza ikuyasa” (literally, you are doing a kuyasa, implying something wrong) thus associating Kuyasa with deviance. Such everyday utterances have implications about what it means to be a good or bad student or more importantly about what it constitutes to be human and non-human.
When we consider the reality of the education of children with disabilities, reliable data are notoriously difficult to obtain to get a real sense of the inequality in their access to education. One estimate is that 93 million children under age 14, or 5.1% of the world’s children, were living with a ‘moderate or severe disability’. Of these, 13 million, or 0.7% of the world’s children, experience severe disabilities. Around four in five children with disabilities are in developing countries. At all ages, levels of both moderate and severe disability are higher in low- and middle-income countries than in rich countries. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest. The scale of disabilities is often under-reported and therefore difficult to gauge for possible interventions. To take one example, according to GMR 2010, a 2004 census in Sierra Leone reported only 3,300 cases of mental impairment, while a detailed national survey the year before had estimated the real figure to be ten times higher. This is questionable and highlights the shame that seems to be associated with being isidalwa.
If one is in a developing country there are also myths one has to contend with that often perpetuate the silence and stigma around people with disabilities. When I was growing up, I was taught to believe that people with disabilities had made the ancestors angry and therefore their disability was a punishment from the ancestors. For those who were mentally impaired, someone had cast a spell on them to render them senseless and shame their family. The irony of these stories is that there were certain people who were exempt from the myths and shame associated with physical disability. By society’s measures my grandmother was isidalwa. As a child she contracted polio on both legs. One of her legs healed but the other didn’t and she spent most of her life using a walking stick. In spite of the stigma of being disabled, black and female, my grandmother was educated and she was able to become financially independent because she worked and became as a well-known seamstress in East London. With her measly salary she raised her own children as a single mother and later opened a small business sewing for people in her community. My grandmother’s story has always made me think differently about the stigma attached to disability. Because she was educated she had the chance to live a public life where she could earn a living rather than become invisible in her family because of the shame that comes with disability. The only limitations that were placed on her were those imposed by an apartheid government which narrowed the opportunities black women could make use of.
The silence and stigma attached to people with disabilities means that there isn’t a global recognition of the importance of making education meaningful for a group of people who are often marginalised for their difference. In South Africa a separate ministry for women, children and people with disabilities was created in order to address the rights of people who fall within society’s perception of “the vulnerable group”. I’m ambivalent about the ministry because on the one hand it aims to recognise that there’s a need to protect the rights of certain groups of people, on the other hand, it runs the risk of highlighting what is normal and what is abnormal where the issues of marginalised groups are a footnote in political discourse.