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by Stacey Vee, parenting journalist and the writer of an award-winning blog about raising what she calls ‘a whole family with special needs’.  Mom to Travis the Lionheart (5 yrs) who has a rare brain malformation called Septo Optic Dysplasia and baby Ryan, affectionately called the Squishy Gorilla (7 mnths). Read about the Lionhearts here .

“Travis will never go to a normal school.”

It hurt, hearing those words coming from our first-born’s paediatric neurologist, but we needed to hear them. Up until that point my husband and I had been clinging to the belief that if we put in the hard work while our son was a toddler – hours of intense sessions occupational, physio and speech therapy – we could ‘fix’ Travis in time for him to go to ‘big school’. We couldn’t be more wrong.

The thing is: educating a child with special needs is a no-man’s land. The Department of Education doesn’t support nor recognise curriculums that have been adapted for students who are intellectually challenged. Don’t get me wrong, there are schools that focus on children with autism, and remedial schools for children with various learning challenges.

But schools for children like Travis, whose disabilities means that he’ll likely never achieve any kind of independence, never mind make any contribution to the economy…

In the year that Travis would begin Grade 1, which is 2014, we’ll have to apply to the Department of Education for exemption for him to attend mainstream schooling as provided by our government. And that’s it – the only, brief and final contact Travis will ever have with South Africa’s education system.

Unlike in developed countries such as the United States, where state authorities go out of their way to accommodate children like Travis, even pairing him with a carer who’d accompany him to school each day and assist him in class, in our country it’s left up to the parents.

So what were we to do? For families like ours, your options are:

  • Keep your disabled child at home, and attempt some form of home-schooling, pitched at his level of understanding.
  • Place your child in a full-time or part-time care facility.
  • Find a school that caters for children with disabilities and special needs.

We went for option three.

You might wonder, why bother educating a mentally disabled boy? At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. When you look back on your school days, do you remember the time you learnt how to do algebra, or do you remember making your first friend and sharing sandwiches on the playground?

We found a school for Travis, the Wiggles and Squiggles Special Needs Academy in Boskruin, where the principal has adapted the Montessorri curriculum for children like Travis. He has an IEP, or an independent education programme, where each term we work towards simple goals. This year one of his goals is to master his pencil-grip. Last year another of his goals was: learn to blow your nose!

Travis gets a report, and we attend regular parent-teacher sessions. We don’t feel like we’re just going through the motions or wasting our money. Instead of being side-lined by the education system, we’ve re-worked the system to suit us. Travis is in the school of life, and his life has value, no matter

P.S. The photos in this article of my family and I were taken by Noleen Foster Photography

Click here to find schools for children with special needs

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