by Erica du Toit

07 / Recognizing the rights of persons with disabilities

The International Day for Persons with Disabilities takes place on 3 December and the focus during November is to take a closer look at disability issues during the weeks leading up to this important international event.

There are many events and campaigns taking place across South Africa hosted by various organisations in this field which shine a light on the rights of persons with disabilities in particular, most notably the Disability Rights Parliament on 3 December where organisations of- and for- persons with disabilities, activists and members of Parliament will compile a disability rights agenda for Parliament for the next 5 years.

Why the need for all this awareness raising and lobbying in Parliament for the rights of persons with disabilities?  Don’t we have the best Constitution in the world, protecting the rights of all the country’s citizens without discrimination or prejudice?  Yes we do.  Chapter 2 of the Constitution is the Bill of Rights which does protect the rights of all citizens.   In addition, we have the White Paper 6 on inclusive education for children with disabilities, the National Integrated Disability Strategy, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, the Promotion of Equality and the Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, to name a few.  These pieces of legislation have all been designed not only to promote equal rights for persons with disabilities, but to provide opportunities in all aspects of life where none existed before.

However, although the legislation exists, there is very little enforcement thereof.  One only has to look around a public area to see that persons with disabilities are conspicuous by their absence.  The best legislation in the world is of little use when it is largely ignored.  Buildings are still erected that completely exclude 15% of the population.  Only 1% of all persons with disabilities has gainful employment.  People with disabilities are still victimised and abused at the hands of their families, friends or colleagues, and told to apply for a grant and find accommodation in a special needs facility. Able bodied people often have little or no idea of how to communicate or interact with someone with a disability, preferring instead to pretend disability does not exist.

It is commonly known amongst persons with disabilities that the single most disabling barrier is people’s attitudes. Legislation, and the enforcing thereof, is something that can be taken up- and lobbied for- to a successful conclusion.  People’s attitudes, on the other hand, are far more difficult to change. Nobody is born prejudiced or discriminatory; it is learnt behaviour, taught to us from early childhood.  Attitudes are years in the making and we acknowledge that it may take many years to combat these stereotypes and misperceptions.

The first step in the process is surely to acknowledge that persons with disabilities are human beings first, who happen to have an impairment.  We may just as well say “people with dark hair” or “people who wear red shirts”.  As human beings, we are all entitled to equal rights: the right to life, freedom from violence and abuse, dignity, education, mobility, safety and security, independent living, health services, employment etc.  Only once society recognises that all people, including those with disabilities, are equal will the tide of ignorance truly begin to turn.

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