The Johannesburg School for Blind Children with or without other
There is no school in Greater Johannesburg for children of low vision,
no vision, and for those children who have other disabilities in addition to
blindness. The metropolis is home to at least four million people.
Children of Fire International and the Children of Fire Trust intend to
be the catalyst to start such a school, but not to run it. Input from all
interested parties teachers, therapists, parents, would be appreciated
to: firstname.lastname@example.org or to
PO Box 1048, Auckland Park 2006, South Africa.
The school should be funded by the South African Governments
Department of Education but the charities will help the DOE to seek expertise
and supplementary funding from businesses and other charities, to improve upon
what the government is willing to provide.
Businesses that have shown provisional support are the African Merchant
Bank, the Nedcor Foundation and Hirsch Furniture Stores.
Currently the Government is not willing to provide anything but in
October 2002 Bronwen Jones of Children of Fire held a nearly four hour meeting
with chief education specialists Khatija Okeke and Mkhuseli Nanise from the
National Department of Education. She is optimistic that a logjam of negativity
may have started to move. Mr Nanise is blind but had sufficient vision when he
was young, to be able to learn at a normal school. He and his colleague were
very understanding about the plight of children like Dorah (see website).
Many blind children have more than one disability and contrary to
popular belief, lack of sight does not give children better hearing or better
use of other senses as a result. However, many blind children given the best
chance since birth, achieve great heights in their personal and professional
lives. There is at least one blind MP in the South African Parliament, a blind
Cabinet Minister in the UK Parliament and famous musicians like Stevie Wonder
are also blind. There are more options open than just becoming piano tuners and
If a child is born blind in Johannesburg, they might get a place,
briefly, to attend the visually impaired crèche located at The Memorial
Institute (TMI), a former hospital, on the edge of Parktown and Hillbrow. There
is little positive to be said about this unit in 2002 (see Gauteng Schools
section of website) but even if it was good at helping children to learn and
develop, they would still have to move to Pretoria, Kliprivier, Katlehong or
further afield, at the age of seven years.
The child must either go there alone or the whole family must be
uprooted to another town or city. This is often not possible, particularly when
there is parental employment, or there are other siblings, to consider.
Boarding school is rarely the best option for any child, but it should
be the last option for a blind child, no matter how good the school is.
The child grows up, hopefully, in a loving, secure family environment.
He/she knows the layout of their bedroom, their house, maybe even the layout of
the street. She has siblings and other relatives who play with her on an equal
status. She is expected to take a part in family chores, whether it is making
her own bed or in washing dishes. She understands the language that is spoken
This little girl or boy may get some education as a toddler (and
early intervention is even more vital for children who dont see), but
with or without that start, it makes no sense that they are then expected to
flourish in a place far from all normal family support and with the teaching
usually in Afrikaans, unless this was their first language.
It is a strange quirk of history in South Africa that schools for blind
children seem to be Afrikaans and schools for deaf children seem to be English.
So the deaf child from a Free State farm may attend St Vincents School
for the Deaf in Johannesburg and when he goes home in the holidays, his family
speak Afrikaans so he cant even try to lip-read what they are saying, and
only very rarely have they learned to sign with their child. If he
hadnt been sent to a boarding school, maybe the parents could have been
more directly involved in his and their own education.
Schools like Prinzhof in Pretoria or the Pioneer School in Worcester (in
the Cape) claim to be bilingual but the staff answer the phone in Afrikaans,
speak to each other in Afrikaans and have (on our visits) had posters on the
walls entirely in Afrikaans. Some of the staff struggle to speak English.
So a little blind child in Johannesburg could leave a secure home and
the language they knew and start life afresh in a totally alien environment. It
would be traumatic.
The schools that exist for blind children also vary greatly in quality.
There seems to be a general policy of "dumbing down" or treating the disabled
as if they were born stupid rather than born with potential. The best option in
the country seems to be the Pioneer School in Worcester (near Cape Town). Some
schools do not even attempt to teach children Braille; some schools have never
even heard of the simpler version of raised symbol language, called Moon. Some
schools mix sighted and blind children, even when they are meant to be
dedicated places for the blind. In a day facility this might be an advantage;
in a boarding school it is a hazard and can (and does) even lead to abuse.
On a visit to Prinzhof a couple of years back, a little boy walked up to
trustee Bronwen Jones and asked if he could play with the car keys in her hand.
She asked why he was there and the staff answered: Because hes
blind. But he could see well.
Another little girl has been placed in the Pioneer school, not because
she cannot see, but because social workers think she is too ugly to look at. We
arranged for the child to have an eye test in August 2001 and the optician
confirmed that there is no need for her to be in a school for the blind.
At Sibonile in Kliprivier, the aspirations of the staff for their pupils
seem very low. It is a boarding facility with the "housemothers" seeming to
understand hygiene to the extent that they don't want the children to play as
children normally do, because it will make extra washing for them. However
while Dorah (see website) attended the school briefly, we learned that there
were children still in their teenage years who regularly soiled their beds but
no one was trying to teach them and their families how the children could be
continent. There were also no washable mattress covers so the mattresses became
more and more of a health concern as time went on.
The list of horror stories at various children's homes and schools for
the blind could be very long - even including a blind girl aged five who was
burned to death in a hot bath as punishment for bedwetting. So we believe
strongly in keeping children with their families, educating the families to
help their own children, and letting the child attend a good school with
special facilities and well-trained inspired teachers, on a daily basis.
We believe however that a significant number of blind, low vision and
children with other disabilities get no schooling at all. (In fact a large
number of perfectly able South African children get no schooling at all). But
if a blind child gets a good education, she can have some chance at
independence, even a chance to earn her own living as an adult. So not only do
these children have a Constitutional right to education, but it makes moral and
economic sense to provide it.
But where to start?
We need to start a Johannesburg-based primary school for children who
cannot see much and who may also have other disabilities. It should start with
one class of approximately Grade One children (accepting that they may have
very different backgrounds and learning abilities) and one Grade R, reception
class. There should be sufficient space and finance for teaching staff to take
this initial intake through to Grade 7 i.e. to 12 years old or a little
The school should be English-medium with assistance in at least Zulu and
Sesotho from classroom assistants.
There are schools already in Johannesburg (many private or part-private)
that cater for children with autism, cerebral palsy, physical disability and
mild mental impairment. But none of these will accept children who cannot see.
Forest Town (cerebral palsy) has accepted one girl who has low vision (but
sufficient vision to recognise people across a room) because she also has
floppy limbs: We understand that the girls elder sister
attends Prinzhof but that the younger one was turned away a
paediatrician hinted at HIV status but declined to explain the reason. It would
have seemed logical and humane to have two sisters in the same boarding school
if one had to attend there in any case.
The fees of certain of the private schools catering for some form of
disability are prohibitive - and are updated on the Children of Fire website as
The new primary school should ideally be located near to existing public
transport facilities e.g. main kombi-taxi routes, buses (though these
are infrequent in Johannesburg) and maybe even the new Gautrain route so
that most of the parents without cars can get there easily. It should also
consider other schools and facilities in the area to see if it could share
buses or similar (as run by schools like Doug Whitehead (Kensington) that pick
up children from as far away as Auckland Park). It might even be possible to
negotiate with a school like the German School to use its extensive bus route
system that spreads right across the city, even to Soweto.
The schools running costs should mostly be funded by the
provincial education department. The Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) has
a duty to educate children and there was a pledge in the media in 2001 that
pupils who excel in science and mathematics could be supported at private
schools with the same fees that it cost to keep them in state schools. It would
be reasonable to have that same allocation from GDE towards each pupil in the
new primary school for the blind, even though it would not be enough to fund
the teacher/pupil ratio needed, let alone support staff such as
physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, or simply
classroom assistants. Some privately-run schools like the Foundation School in
Melville (initially a bridging facility to mainstream education) got R800 a
year per pupil contribution from government. This is not enough.
Teacher Training for inclusion
SA government education policy now aims for inclusion of disabled
children in mainstream education. On one level this is wonderful but in reality
it cannot often work, primarily because of poor teacher training in the first
place or inappropriate facilities, or both. With the excessive pupil numbers in
the classes, it is also impossible to give disabled children the attention that
they need. However, if teachers can be taught how to teach a blind child and a
sighted child the same subject, inclusion of at least low-vision children in
mainstream schooling might be possible.
It can be as simple as providing spectacles, magnifying devices, sitting
an impaired vision child at the front of the class, and obtaining large print
In some schools the child learns with other children but, because of
physical problems, they are given an adult to write their exams with the child
dictating the answers for the adult to write down. The high cost of providing
one-to-one help is limited only to exam time.
Full year with only very short holidays
The new Johannesburg primary school for the blind should carry out
teacher training for half of December, at least one week around the Easter
break and for at least half of July. This would maximise use of the facilities,
spread vital knowledge and also ensure that the pupils can attend school for
longer than pupils at other schools.
Blind children, especially very young ones and especially those with
additional disabilities, are very hard work to look after well. It is easy for
children to regress if the breaks from school are too long. Parents,
particularly working parents, need more support than the normal school year
Educators estimate that looking after a blind child is the equivalent of
looking after six normal children. Ones with additional
disabilities like Dorah (see website) can be equated to looking after ten
Some children may not be very mobile and so could just be left in the
corner at home, doing nothing much at all. This can be through lack of parental
awareness, or family exhaustion/depression, or family indifference. It should
be obligatory for parents to attend short course at the school to also know how
to help their children most effectively, and for a teacher or other
professional to visit each family at home to help them maximise the
childs potential in the home environment.
Who should teach?
There are very few teachers in South Africa with appropriate skills,
experience and most of all, the will. One would start with a small core of
people who have either already worked with blind children or who have related
skills and are prepared to train and make a long-term commitment.
It might be appropriate to ask the Danish government to sponsor a
specialist like Lilli Nielsen to visit and train people for a solid month, two
weeks with the children in place, and to then return three months later for
another batch of training and to help adjust methods, classroom layout, etc to
fit the needs that became evident in the interim period.
There is a need to get blind children to move with confidence. This can
require the skills of occupational therapists or physiotherapists. Sometimes
the lack of movement before attending school leaves the child with muscle
weakness that can be fixed by regular work with a physiotherapist but
that might mean individual weekly sessions for a year ideally with some
family member involved as well, so they learn how to help their own child.
If children have other disabilities from birth or from injuries
occupational therapists can devise prosthesis to, e.g. overcome lack of
dexterity or lack of limb movement.
Speech therapists for particular children would need to work
It could be possible to link with an academic programme such as for
occupational therapy students from Wits University, but people dipping in and
out of childrens lives can be very disruptive and do more harm than good.
Whoever is in touch with the children should make a regular commitment, ideally
for at least six months at one day a week, preferably for longer.
It might also be feasible to contact large organisations like Netcare
Rehabilitation (Auckland Park) and see if they can second staff like physios
and speech therapists for one day a week. But being cheapskate will not help
the children, so a budget should be included for professional help at market
What special facilities are needed?
It is worth spending more on the early design and construction of a
school to make an ideal learning facility for the blind. A few of these
concepts are detailed on the Children of Fire (burns charity) website under the
sections titled: Tsephos Project
and Dorah House.
The school should be on one level unless it is making use of an existing
building, in which case upper floor(s) could be used for administration,
storage, and in-service teaching for inclusion projects in mainstream
Corridors and doorways should be wide enough for wheelchairs and if
there are any steps there must also be adjacent ramps.
There should be guide rails around the whole building, at a height that
is easy for a child of seven to reach.
There should be complimentary painting or choice of building materials
to easily differentiate walls and floors, entrances and the like. E.g. If doors
are painted white, the doorframes should be painted dark red. Many children
with low vision can orientate themselves through such
Likewise, a greenhouse effect of surrounding children with
light is not helpful. But windows on two walls of a four-wall room, the windows
of very different shapes, help a child to know that is she walks towards the
big circle of light, thats the way to the bathroom, and if she walks
alongside the big rectangle of light, thats the way to the
Textured surfaces also help. In some cities paving stones have been
installed next to pedestrian crossings that are covered in a series of round
bumps. These, and beeping signals when a button is pressed, indicate that it is
a safe place to cross the road. It doesnt take account of the people who
jump traffic lights, but the concept is solid.
Even the soil of pathways and gardens can be chosen to maximise
independence. A light sandy path next to a dark soil flowerbed, can be seen by
many low vision children. There can be rope guiderails and even water features
and wind chimes to help guide children.
The choice of plant scents and textures also help.
Plastic camels or real ones:
Hand a blind child a plastic camel and she wont learn much about
the animal. In fact she probably wont think it is a depiction of an
animal at all. Why is it miniaturised? Why is it hard? Why doesnt it
smell like an animal? Why doesnt it move or breathe or have fur or make
any noise at all?
The school should have small animals that are used to being handled, for
children to learn what they really are. Where possible, there should be visits
to zoos or visits to the school by mobile zoos.
Teachers have to learn to think differently to put across different
Music is vital. There should be instruments for children to play
from large wooden xylophones and drums, to pipes and whistles and
Acoustics of the whole school are important. A blind child listens to
other peoples footsteps and listens where she walks herself.
Feely walls; Trailing walls; sensory rooms and rooms that demonstrate
cause and effect stimulation for young children, are all needed.
Take a thick piece a cord like that used to tie around curtains
for decoration or heavy fabric piping for sofas, and stick it on a wall, going
up and down so that a child following it with his hand, will have to crouch and
stretch. Make the cord go round at least three walls of a room. Along the way
add a variety of interesting items in terms of texture, shape, size, and
if possible smell and sound as well. This feely wall will make blind children
want to explore the room.
Hang a piece of swimming pool netting from four corners of the ceiling.
Hang different items from the netting. As the child pulls one item she will
hear another item move or if she can see a little, she might see a shiny or
sparkling item move.
Furniture should remain in one place; even putting markings on the floor
to help cleaners to keep to the system. A blind child uses proprioception to
know where things are from previous experience.
Blind children benefit from nature tables even more than
sighted children. One needs seashells and sand and bottles of seawater and salt
to lick and tapes of waves and seagulls to listen to, and buckets and spades,
and even big bowls of water with pieces of wood floating on them.
Live goldfish can be kept .. though they wouldnt cope with much
handling and fish can even be explained a little through the smell of
goldfish food.. as it is flakes of dried fish. Children can eat fishcakes or
similar on the day they learn about fish and the sea or rivers.
Carpets have been made internationally where children can jump on
different coloured squares to play music one square, one note. The
concept could be adjusted to include different textured squares as well.
Staff and classroom assistants must be able to swim. A pool is important
as blind children need to learn to swim for their own safety but also because
water is a very relaxing place for most disabled children to be.
Working with play dough and real dough, learning how to cook simple
food, use a sink, an oven, a stovetop, a fridge, etc are life skills that help
all children and are also part of safety education.
Children of Fire advocates acquiring a house in Melville, Auckland Park,
Parktown or Westdene as these areas are close to its existing offices and make
initial supervision much easier. Public transport to the areas is reasonably
good. All the areas are also close to two universities, some other colleges and
several state and private hospitals all with staff who could support
such a facility.
A house with a swimming pool would be an asset for the pupils. It is
envisaged in October 2002 that a suitable property might cost in the region of
R700 000 but obtaining a disused Council facility might also be viable; even a
disused church. A large property would allow for expansion but would have
higher rates and other running costs, from the beginning.
It could be possible for a donor to acquire a property and,
say, give a free twenty year lease to a school.. but retain ownership.
Melville/Auckland Park properties retain their value quite well, so then it
would almost be an investment....
In theory the most logical answer would have been to expand facilities
at TMI. But there are only two teaching staff there, neither with special
training and, parents allege, neither with any noticeable interest in the work
that they should be doing. They appear demotivated and one allegedly exhibits
prejudice towards non-white children, particularly if they are disabled. One
teacher had been trying for a considerable time to emigrate. The place does not
function because it has two "masters" - health and education - and neither
seems to know what the other is doing (or rather what they are not doing).
There was a paediatrician there who has ignored the rights of disabled children
and their families and carried out at least one insensitive and illegal medical
examination that can be considered assault, as no prior permission was gained
from the families and no explanation given to the child (children).
The School for the Blind in Johannesburg is needed now. Once premises
are secured it would be easier to seek funding for all the many other aspects
that would be needed - teaching staff, running costs, special equipment. Once
well-established, the school should be run as a Section 21 company with its own
governing body, though Children of Fire could maintain regular interest and
input, and maybe have a seat on the governing body.
November 2001; revised October 2002.