Adv Jacques du Preez, FW de Klerk Foundation

Monday, 3 December 2012, is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The day is set aside to commemorate the achievements of people with disabilities and is aimed at promoting better understanding of disability issues and mobilising support for the dignity, rights and well-being of disabled people.

Today, an estimated 500 million people in the world are disabled as a result of some form of mental, physical or sensory impairment. In South Africa almost three million people live with various forms of disability. According to Statistics SA, the prevalence of sight disability is the highest (32%), followed by physical disability (30%), hearing disability (20%), emotional disability (16%), intellectual disability (12%) and communication disability (7%).

Despite these challenges, the courageous feats of people living with disabilities are inspiring.

Imagine writing a book where one’s mental state is perfectly normal and stable, but your whole body is paralyzed from head to toe. This was the case for Jean-Dominique Bauby, a famous French journalist and author. In 1995 he suffered coronary heart failure that left him in a coma. Subsequent to coming out of the coma he was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder called locked-in syndrome and could move only his left eyelid. Yet, despite his condition, he wrote a book titled The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking when a person slowly reciting the alphabet over and over again reached the correct letter. Bauby had to compose and edit the book entirely in his head, and convey it one letter at a time. The book was published in France on 7 March 1997.

Imagine British theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who produced brilliant theories on gravitational singularities, general relativity and black holes. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 – the highest civilian award in the United States – is a Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London and is a lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican. Hawking has written numerous books and has made countless public appearances – all while severely disabled by motor neuron disease and a specific variant of the disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS caused Hawking to gradually lose the use of his arms, legs, and voice, and has left him almost completely paralyzed since 2009.

South Africa has its own list of disabled heroes, including swimmers like Natalie Du Toit, sprinters like Oscar Pistorius and quadriplegic tennis wheelchair players like Lucas Sithole.

Last year, the FW de Klerk Foundation had the honour of successfully nominating our own Chaeli Mycroft for the 2011 International KidsRights Peace Prize. Chaeli, who was born 18 years ago with cerebral palsy, has been  confined to a wheelchair all her life. Nevertheless, she and her friends in Cape Town founded the Chaeli Campaign that has helped more than 3 000 South African children with disabilities, by providing equipment, therapy and support.

According to the UN Development Program (UNDP), 80% of persons with disabilities worldwide live in developing countries. This includes South Africa. Most studies confirm the existence of a two-way causal link between poverty and disability, and this often creates a vicious cycle where poor people are more at risk of acquiring a disability because of lack of access to good nutrition, health care, sanitation and safe employment and living conditions. This in turn contributes to disabled people facing barriers to education, further education, employment and other public services.

This is a particularly aggravating fact for South Africa, where almost half of South Africans are living below the poverty line and survive on less than R600 a month.

These individuals are entitled to the same constitutional rights, privileges and equal opportunities as all other human beings. The South African Constitution makes everyone equal before the law and entitles everyone to the benefit and protection thereof. Section 9(3) and 9(4) of the Constitution prohibit discrimination on grounds of disability.

However, people living with disabilities are still handicapped by physical and social barriers, which hamper their full participation in society. Because of this, millions of children and adults in all parts of the world still face a segregated and debased life.

What are other issues facing people who live with disabilities?

Factors which continue to increase the social vulnerability of disabled people in South Africa include: low income, lack of access to public facilities and other barriers excluding them from social services and/or activities. However two of the biggest issues are difficulties in finding employment and additional expenses related to disability.

Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, stated in 2011 that the failure by the public and private sector to achieve the 2% target set for the employment of people with disabilities is unacceptable.

Regarding additional expenses related to disability, the World Bank indicates that the poverty line for disabled people ought to take into account extra expenses incurred in exercising the purchasing power they have. A study in the United Kingdom found that the poverty rate for disabled people was 23.1% compared to 17.9% for non-disabled people. When extra expenses incurred as a result of being disabled were considered, the poverty rate for people with disabilities climbed to 47.4%.

It is estimated that 1.6 million people in South Africa use Sign Language as a first language. Of these, 600 000 are profoundly deaf and one million are extremely hard of hearing. This figure is also higher than those for speakers of four of the 11 official languages, namely Tsonga (1.35 million), Swazi (926 000), Ndebele (799 000) and Venda (763 000). The fact that the new Use of Official Languages Act only makes one small reference to sign language and its official use, is an indictment on Government. The question can be raised whether it is not time to possibly recognize sign language as an official language as this issue also impacts on the primary, secondary and further education of sign language users.

The South African White Paper on the Integrated National Disability Strategy of 1997 found that one of the greatest hurdles disabled people face when trying to access mainstream programs, is negative attitudes and that these attitudes lead to the social exclusion and marginalization of people with disabilities. These attitudes need to be addressed and changed.

Most of us lead our lives thinking about disabled South Africans only now and then when we see the  blue wheelchair signs or the Braille on automatic teller machine buttons.

Perhaps we should all take a moment during the International Day of Persons with Disabilities to consider the enormous challenges that disabled South Africans have to face every single day of the year.

*The FW de Klerk Foundation has to date channelled almost R2 million to organisations that care for South African children with disabilities. Should you wish to make a contribution please send an e-mail

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
This entry was posted in Articles from South Africa, Politics, philosophy and other perspectives and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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