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Realising disability rights in Southern Africa

- Lem Chetty

People with disabilities still experience barriers to the realisation of their rights. A new view on disability is required.

Disability Rights | © Chanté Schatz | Curiosity 17: #Democracy ©

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, states that: “Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law. Equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms. To promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons or categories of persons disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken.”

For everyone in South Africa, our Constitutional rights are among the strongest and most just in the world. However, there is a long way to go in the practical implementation of many of those rights and freedoms. For people with disabilities, the chasm between legislation, policy, and implementation is that much deeper. 

Few public or workspaces in South Africa today adequately meet the needs of people with disabilities. While some have demarcated access areas, modified bathroom facilities, maps to disability-friendly access points, and handrails on stairwells, the requirements for a person with disabilities to successfully engage in economic activity are generally lacking.

Although Wits' campuses include accessible control panel interfaces in elevators (Braille keypads, voice activation, mirrored back walls), other facilities such as tactile paving for the visually impaired, hearing loop systems and other smart facilities that accommodate “everyone” are generally few and far between elsewhere.

Dr Leila Abdool Gafoor, Head of the Disability Rights Unit at Wits says that while the University’s physical environment has created access for people with disabilities, this is not the case in all sectors of society.

“In my own work environment in the higher education sector, for example, I see reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities being applied quite well and fairly, levelling the playing field between those with and those without disabilities. Most educational institutions have Disability Units that actively advocate for those who need support, and which provide that support to anyone who seeks it. While I think that South Africa’s policies are fantastic, as well as the overarching and guiding mechanisms in terms of what should be put into place, it is the struggle to implement them that I mostly see in our society.”

Silos stymie progress

An advocate for disability rights, Naeema Hussein El Kout is a Lecturer in the Physiotherapy Department at Wits and is currently researching policies related to disability. She says that one of the biggest hurdles in considering disability rights is silos in governance.

She quotes Sir Michael Marmot, a renowned epidemiologist and public health expert, who emphasises a crucial perspective: “ ‘Every sector is a health sector’. This underscores the interconnectedness of the various aspects of our lives with our overall wellbeing. We need intersectoral collaboration with the Department of Labour and the Department of Education and so on, if we are going to be improving rights.” 

New views on disabilities

El Kout scores policy implementation a 5 out of 10. She says, “Following many years of broad inequity in South Africa, considering that our democracy is young and our sociopolitical history fraught, disability rights are not being actualised and support has not improved significantly since 1994. This is true for many areas of society; we see efforts being made but we haven’t quite got there yet, particularly in improving healthcare.”

It's about trying to revolutionise policy and how disability is viewed, from just a physical lens, to include speech and rehabilitation from conditions including strokes and heart disease, Covid-19, mental health and HIV. “These are not often considered disabilities, but they are,” she says.

Using guidelines from the World Health Organization, and focusing on public health and service delivery, she says that the aim is to ensure that policy not only supports accommodating people with disabilities, but also rehabilitation and before that, prevention.  “How many years are lost to disability – in whatever form it comes – what has it done to a person’s life and how could that have been prevented if we intervened early?”

Prioritising policy in practice

“My wish list is that there is more focus on health policy and that the agenda reaches the people who are considering national health priorities. Rehabilitation specialists need to be part of the policy teams. In a national health insurance scenario, rehabilitation would be prioritised as well as preventative care, promotion of healthy lifestyles and physical activity,” says El Kout.

The need is urgent. “We are still recovering from HIV, secondary complications from antiretrovirals and more recently the Covid pandemic. We don’t even have accurate figures for the prevalence of disability – I am certain that disability affects many more people than the current statistic of 15% of our population.”

Limited disability rights actualisation in a democratic South Africa due to a lack of true transformative policy and implementation, has a direct impact on employability, which in turn has an impact on the country’s economy and on its social conditions.

  • Lem Chetty is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the 17th issue, themed: #Democracy, we turn to our academics and professional staff for their research, perspectives and commentary on both the progress and shortcomings in our democracy, and democracies elsewhere.