08.12.2009 -

Interview with Judith McKenzie, one of the winners of the 2009 UNESCO/Emir Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah Prize to Promote Quality Education for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities

Expert, activist, policy wonk and mother, Judith McKenzie has worn many hats in her career, from doing hands-on work in remote villages in South Africa to participating in high-level policy discussions on inclusive education. She has also run the gamut of education solutions – or the lack of them – for intellectually disabled children, not least for her own son Joel, who has Down Syndrome.

What does this prize represent for you?

Of all the prizes in all the world, this is the one I would have chosen! I’m honoured and overwhelmed. The prize represents recognition – it makes intellectual disabilities into something important.  

You have participated in high-level debates on disability and inclusion. Do you think you have made a difference at policy level?

I would like to think I have had an influence. Discussions I’ve taken part in have contributed to changing the law, but it’s a long process. Disability issues are now included in the South African legal framework. Everything takes much longer than you ever thought it would. Although things have changed, there are still many, many people whose lives have changed. There is still a huge need, but at least it’s now acknowledged as a need.  

How did your interest in inclusive education start?

I first worked as a speech therapist as part of an interdisciplinary team dealing with a wide range of disabilities. We asked questions about our patients, like: “What are their lives like?” “What can we do to support them in the community?” Then we decided to move operations from the hospital to the community. I got involved in training community-based rehabilitation workers. I really started from scratch.

We went into homes and schools. That’s where my interest in inclusive education started. I realized that it’s not enough to help a child walk or talk if you can’t get them into schools and give them a chance to learn.  

Your own career has combined national policy, international study and hands-on work…

Yes, I worked with women in rural areas who started up little crèches in private homes or churches. They had skills but no qualifications. I trained them in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) and general teaching skills, with emphasis on inclusive education. I also worked at university level, teaching undergraduate and postgraduate teachers. Quite a contrast! For three years I was on the Kellogg International Leadership Programme and visited different inclusive education programmes worldwide. We were a very diverse lot. We visited each others’ homes, developed study groups and exchanged projects.  

What was your biggest challenge?

A teacher training pilot project on inclusive education with the Department of Education. Many in-service teachers were under-qualified. When South Africa moved from apartheid to democracy, teachers needed to upgrade their qualifications. Of the nine provinces in South Africa, I got the Eastern Cape, which is the biggest! We had to bring teachers together despite great logistical problems: long distances, bad roads, overpriced hotels which used up our budget… But it was extremely rewarding. Despite the ups and downs we developed a network throughout the province of people who cared passionately about disability and inclusion issues. The teachers were fantastic - they showed great commitment, they even came for training during their holidays. 

Your son Joel was born with Down Syndrome. Did your involvement with disability issues prepare you for this new situation?

It was still a huge shock. It took a lot of getting used to. Luckily I was already in that environment and knew lots of therapists and parents, plus my husband and other children were very helpful. I contacted the chair of the South Africa Down Syndrome Association who was very active in getting the Department of Education to implement inclusive education. She became a mentor for me. As a mother you quickly realise what is talk and what is action! Schools are not at all welcoming to Down Syndrome kids. Many of them do not go to school at all! I’m on my high horse about this at the moment in terms of EFA and the MDGs… with massive exclusion of disabled kids we’re not going to reach these goals.  

What kind of school does Joel attend?

Joel is in a special school at the moment, which is unchallenging and overprotective. “Special education” is sometimes raised as a solution but it’s not. It’s just not feasible to build special schools for all disabled children. Inclusion is the only way to get these kids an education. The whole concept of inclusive education is that teachers should adapt curricula to meet the needs of all the kids in the class, who are at different levels. It’s terrible to see kids who haven’t been to school, or kids who have been kept back in the same grade for two or three years, growing bigger and watching the others move on year after year. It’s so important to keep them with their peers. Other parents in the Down Syndrome Association report that every year it’s a battle to get their child to move on to the next grade. Next year Joel will be in a regular school in Cape Town with a special needs unit – a good combination of integration and special attention. It’s not standard inclusive education but then I can’t afford to be a purist!



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