Parents battle to access education

Sheila Belcher has struggled for 14 years to get suitable care for her teenage son who is a quadriplegic. Ruan Belcher, now 18, was just four years old when he nearly drowned at his Edgemead home. It was on Easter Monday in April 2002, just minutes before going to the beach with his family, when he fell into the swimming pool. Ruan was left paralysed, unable to do anything for himself. He was also left blind, but his eyesight has since returned.

Ms Belcher, 56, has been to various institutions to find the most suitable care for her son, but she said they had all fallen short of what he needed.

“The biggest challenge we found, was finding suitable education, rehabilitation and overall care for Ruan,” said Ms Belcher.

Ruan is 100 percent dependent on others doing things for him, but his general health is otherwise very good.

His mother said special needs education in South Africa is woefully inadequate and failing children like Ruan.

“Something is being done about the education, but very slow. So you get children like Ruan which is a whole generation gone that didn’t receive proper education.”

Ms Belcher said Ruan, who “knows exactly what’s going on around him”, has been at home since January and has a full-time caregiver. She worries what will happen to her son when she is no longer around, especially given the shortage of homes for people like Ruan and the limited prospects he faces without a decent education.

“This is the very scary part for me – no one can care for you, the way your mother does.”

For the last three years, Ruan has been getting communication and language therapy as well as physiotherapy by Speak2me, which provides assessments and training for physically and/or mentally disabled people who can’t use their voices to speak. Speak2me physiotherapist Sonja Higham said they work with both adults and children who do not have functional speech, teaching them to use picture cards, hand signs and even an eye-tracking computer system called Eye Gaze to augment their communication. The therapy costs about R700 per session and is covered by Ms Belcher’s medical aid.

Toni Tresadern, from Thandanani House, in Welgelegen is very worried about special needs education in the province. She feels children with certain special needs do not cope well in public schools where there are very large classes of about 30 to 50 children and where some special needs children, such as those with autism who are bright but lack social skills, are likely to draw the attention of bullies.

“It is virtually impossible for teachers to give them the attention they need and deserve,” she said.

Only the wealthy, she said, can afford to send their children to inclusive schools where classes are small and each child is given the attention they need.

“I have heard that the number of inclusive schools being registered in the province has grown rapidly,” said Ms Tresadern, who has four special needs children in foster care at Thandanani.

Western Cape Education Department (WCED) spokeswoman Jessica Shelver said 6.1 percent of the department’s budget, or R1.182 billion, had been allocated to special needs education in the 2016/2017 financial year.

“One of the greatest challenges we face is increasing demand for access to our facilities. One of the priorities of the Western Cape government is to provide opportunities for all learners to access a quality education, including those children who experience barriers to learning,” said Ms Shelver.

The WCED would be building two new schools for children with high support needs in the next three to five years.

“This will help alleviate the enormous pressure the system faces regarding the placement of children with disabilities,” said Ms Shelver.

To ease some of the pressure on existing special needs schools, the WCED would use mainstream schools to accommodate pupils with “moderate barriers in the mainstream of education”.

Ms Shelver said the WCED recognised that some pupils were more suited to vocational or practical study outside of the mainstream schooling system.

She said there are 18 schools of skills in the Western Cape, with five special schools that have the skills units attached.

A school of skills develops a child’s vocational skills, and the learners are given training in certain areas, like cooking or beading.

However, she said the WCED was looking to increase the number of places in these schools in the coming years.