By Phumla Williams

Issues pertaining to people with disabilities come into sharp focus as South Africa marks National Disability Rights Awareness Month that started from 3 November to 3 December 2020. This annual commemoration seeks to remind all of us about the foundational document of our hard-won freedom and democracy, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa of 1996.

When Cabinet adopted the White Paper on the Rights of People with Disabilities in 1995, it sought to give effect to the constitutional rights of people with disabilities to full inclusion, integration and equality.

In addition, South Africa is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, one of the most important international instruments intended to reaffirm the basic human rights and dignity of people with disabilities. The White Paper on the Rights of People with Disabilities spells out nine strategic pillars of intervention.

Despite calling for sectorial policies to ensure the mainstreaming of issues affecting people with disabilities in all facets of development in our country, a mind-set shift remains elusive in the implementation in some sectors.

According to Statistics South Africa’s Census 2011 Disability Report, an estimated 7.5% of the South African population are people with disabilities and most of them are women.

The caring and public-spirited government has since the advent of the democratic dispensation moved swiftly to introduce progressive laws, policies and regulations to ensure the equality of all people in our society, including people with disabilities.

Prior to 1994, people living with disabilities were clustered as a group of people who deserved to be recognised through social grants. They were never seen as potential resources to the development of the economy of the country or as people who are capable of fending for themselves when given such an opportunity.

Now 26 years later into our democracy, are we anywhere near the constitutional ideals of affirming the rights of people with disabilities?

It is important to highlight that most people with disabilities do not necessarily want handouts, but need due recognition as contributors to the country’s socio-economic development. In fact, some of them actively participated in the struggle for liberation and are therefore also entitled to the freedom that we all enjoy today. They are patriotic citizens who also want to build the country like all of us, especially in a conducive environment that takes into account their personal circumstances.

It is always critical to create a conducive work environment for people with disabilities.

Our public transport should be convenient and user friendly, and all buildings must have facilities for people using wheelchairs. Information should be made accessible to blind people in formats such as Braille and this is non-negotiable.

Support to children with disabilities in primary, higher and tertiary education facilities is the key to their future. Educated people with disabilities employed by some companies, including those with technical skills, are contributing meaningfully to growing our economy.

Although some employers religiously submit their employment equity statistics to the Department of Employment and Labour, which help to drive the transformational agenda, a bigger agenda is to ensure that the minority and marginalised groups are given the space and support to contribute meaningfully to the economy.

Whilst acknowledging that some are unable to contribute economically due to the nature of their disabilities, government and society at large have a responsibility to protect their human rights. Government’s social security programme ensures that people with disabilities have access to services and opportunities.

The Care Dependency Grant assists families to care for children with special needs at home while the Disability Grant for adults over the age of 18 years caters for those who are unlikely to find employment because of their disability and have no or limited sources of income.

While women in this country continue to experience the horrors of gender-based violence and femicide, which government is striving to combat, women with disabilities are also victims of this social pandemic.

Early this year, a 46-year-old partially blind and physically disabled woman was allegedly raped by her neighbour in Limpopo. Such disturbing stories form part of the untold hardships experienced by women and children with disabilities.

We must all work together to protect and promote the constitutional rights of people with disabilities. As responsible citizens, let us not look away when a disable woman is being molested.

As a society, we must also prevent people from becoming disabled through our reckless and negligent driving behaviour on the road. Every year, thousands of lives are forever changed due to road carnages. Surviving victims often sustain severe injuries and some face a lifetime of incapacity.

We can prevent this by simply changing our behaviour on the road, particularly as the festive season approaches and many people will be travelling to distant holiday destinations.

By Phumla Williams – Director-General of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS).