Disturbing reality of SA youth with disabilities

We are leaving May behind us and going into June.  While the only relation between these 2 months is that they lie next to each other on our calendar, or both fall in autumn, I realised that we celebrate Workers Day and Youth Day during these 2 months.  I marvel at the irony that these 2 concepts, in terms of disability, couldn’t be further apart!


Vast amounts of South African children are not in school, due to various reasons.  Most notable of these is the tremendous shortage of schools and the lack of transport for children in deep rural areas to be able to reach school.  This is a tragedy waiting to happen, and we can prepare ourselves for uneducated adults if there is no urgent State intervention.


For children and youth with disabilities, the reality is much worse.

Young man in a wheelchair looks over railings towrds the sea

A paper titledAccess to livelihood assets among youth with and without disabilities in South Africa: Implications for health professional education”, written by Theresa Lorenzo and Jane Murray Cramm of the Disability Studies and Occupational Therapy, Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at University of Cape Town and published in Volume 102 No. 6 of the South African Medical Journal, revealed that far fewer youth with disabilities attended and completed school, resulting in higher unemployment in that same group than amongst youth without disabilities.  Barriers to accessing employment for youth with disabilities were poor health and lack of skills development.  They also reported less access to bathrooms, telephones and newspapers, as well as public services and the business sector. Participation and access were limited for both groups because of inaccessible public transport.  The paper finds, in conclusion, that youth with disabilities “struggle to access the livelihood assets of education, employment, social support systems, free-time activities, facilities, and services, when compared with their non-disabled counterparts”.


Inadequate education leads to low employability.  Why would we educate children to a point where we can say we have done our bit, but neglect to see that the education level we provide is insufficient to lead to gainful employment?  We are setting children and youth with disabilities up for failure.  Access to education is more difficult which means that education levels amongst children and youth with disabilities is much lower than others.  They do not leave school with a Matric qualification, the minimum requirement for employment.

Education word cloud“But what about special schools? They educate children & youth with disabilities?” you say. Well, yes. And no. Sure, there are schools that are specifically geared towards providing education to children with disabilities which fill a huge void in our education system.  However, they are typically geared towards the child with a severe disability whose needs are too great to accommodate in a mainstream school, and are not the answer for every child. Many children with disabilities do not require an ELSEN school, but rather a school that is physically accessible, with educators that understand that the child is a learner first, with specific needs second.  Such children benefit from attending a typical school in many ways – socialising with children of varying abilities, developing social skills and a sense of belonging, to name a few – while there are also notable benefits for other children. Many children with disabilities who have successfully attended mainstream primary and secondary schools have gone on to education at a tertiary level.


In short, we as a country do not provide adequate education for children and youth with disabilities, resulting in their unemployability.  And then when confronted with this fact, we blame the child’s impairment and level of functioning and not our own actions.  We disable them by our attitudes and lack of insight into the real problem behind low levels of education amongst youth with disabilities.


Ask yourself: how can youth with disabilities ever expect to find and maintain employment when we as a society are denying them their right to an education on the same level as others?  We are denying them not only their right to education and employment, but also their right to financial security (instead of lifelong receivers of a social grant), provide for a family, and status as equal members of our communities.


We are setting them up for a life of dependence.

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