Respecting those with disabilities

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

By Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini

Every day we go about our lives with the expectation that we should be treated fairly. Whether we are at work, at an institution of learning or in the community we all hope that people will respond positively to our character and abilities rather than being blindsided by stereotypes.

Over the past 20 years South Africa has come a long way to rid society of any form of discrimination and injustices especially for vulnerable groups including people with disabilities. We are however mindful that more needs to be done to create a fair and inclusive society where everyone has equal opportunities to succeed.

We are reminded of this as we mark Disability Rights Awareness Month from 3 November to 3 December. During this month South Africans will have the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the progress made over the past 20 years in realising the political and socio-economic rights of persons with disabilities.

As a country we have moved from a place where our fellow countrymen and women with disabilities were discriminated against, neglected and marginalised to one where our Constitution ensures that every South African with a disability has the right to a life without discrimination and to be treated as equals.

The personal journey of Social Development Deputy Minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu is a good illustration of the progress we have made since attaining democracy.  Reflecting on it, the Deputy Minister recently highlighted how there were no services or information available to her mother Florence “Poppie” Bogopane when she was born visually impaired in a then Bophuthatswana village of Phokeng in 1971.

To add to an already challenging situation, the community believed that a disability was linked to witchcraft, which influenced their interaction with the family.

In 1990 Deputy Minister Bogopane-Zulu gave birth to her first child, Kealeboga, who was born blind.  As with her mother nineteen years before, she soon realised that there was little information or support services available in Phokeng.

Life however changed for the better following the introduction of new policies after 1994. When Zanele was born with the same disability the changes became more apparent; for starters there was a sea change in the attitude of nurses, neighbours and family members. 

Service-related information was suddenly available at the click of a button. Furthermore, then she could choose whether to enrol Zanele in an inclusive or special early childhood development programme and school.

As Deputy Minister Bogopane-Zulu life story clearly shows, our country has significantly changed for people with the disabilities since 1994. Although we are proud of our many advances, which include disability grants and various pieces of legislation, we acknowledge that more work remains to be done.

One area which is critical to empower people with disabilities is education. Since the dawn of democracy government has dedicated substantial resources to strengthening schools for learners with disabilities.  

As Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga recently pointed out, we have increased the number of special schools from 295 in 2002 to 436 in 2013. Over the same period, enrolment at these schools increased from 77 000 to 111 854. Furthermore, the enrolment of learners with disabilities in ordinary schools have also increased from 77 700 to 119 500.

Minister Motshekga also gave her assurance that this sector will receive priority attention over the next five years. All Deaf learners will from next year be taught in South African Sign Language at home language level.  In addition, 600 teachers will be trained to become fully competent in Braille. By 2016 no teacher will be allowed to teach in a special school without the requisite specialist knowledge of Braille.  

Government encourages people with disabilities to improve their skills base  through education. Bursaries are available through the Higher and Further Education Disability Services Association and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.

While our education system is on track to become more inclusive, the workplace still lags behind. The Employment Equity 2013-2014 Report states that employees with disabilities accounted for only 0.9 per cent of the total workforce. It also points out that employees with disabilities still face “unfair discrimination in the workplace on a day-to-day basis”.

To address the high incidence of under-employment of persons with disabilities, government is currently finalising the National Disability Rights Policy. It will, among others, put measures in place that will address external factors preventing job-seekers with disabilities from accessing gainful employment.

Another area which is receiving priority attention is the accessibility of public transport. The Bus Rapid Transit being rolled-out across the country was designed to ensure that people with disabilities can travel with ease. The Gautrain also prides itself on the significant number of commuters with disabilities who make use of its service.

During Disability Rights Awareness Month we call on business and civil society to work with us so that we can start building a more inclusive society where everyone is empowered and has an equal chance to succeed. Let’s move the country forward together.