A measure of a society's respect for human rights and generosity of spirit can be gauged by how it treats the most vulnerable in its midst. Since the onset of democracy we have placed great emphasis on protecting and uplifting the lives of vulnerable members of society.
Recognising that November is National Disability Rights Awareness Month, we take stock of the progress we have made to secure and advance the interests of people with disabilities.
We can indeed look back with pride at the strides we have recorded in this important sector, particularly as we prepare to celebrate 20 Years of Freedom next year.
Government has done much to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities through legislation, policies and social interventions.
For the nearly 2.9 million people with disabilities in the country life has changed for the better since 1994. Each person can fully participate in all aspects of society, as well as enjoy access to opportunities on an equal basis.
Gone are the days when people associated disabilities with purely medical or welfare problems. Rather, it is now a human rights and development issue.
This important change in thinking, driven by government in conjunction with social partners, has resulted in broadening the focus from solely providing medical care to an all-encompassing emphasis on wider social needs.
Today people with disabilities enjoy the many rights that are entrenched in our democracy. Everything we do is informed by our Constitution, which promotes, protects and advances the rights of people with disabilities. It also ensures that people with disabilities do not suffer discrimination and are treated equally.
Moreover, in 2007 South Africa signed and ratified the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
It commits us to foster respect for the rights and dignity of people with disabilities, combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices relating to people with disabilities.
Our commitment to advance people with disabilities is receiving attention at the highest level. President Jacob Zuma regularly meets with the leadership of Disabled People South Africa to monitor progress.
Following the last meeting, President Zuma reiterated government’s commitment to deal with the issues that affect people with disabilities, which are already evident in a number of government initiatives.
Our social security programme ensures that people with disabilities have access to services and opportunities. Government is providing a care dependency grant to assist families to care for children with special needs at home.
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.
Since 2002 the number of people accessing disability grants has steadily increased. The disability grant and care dependency grant is currently R1 270. Social grants remain the cornerstone of our key programmes to fight poverty affecting children, people with disabilities and older persons.
While our successes in addressing the needs of people with disabilities are cause for celebration, government understands that more still needs to be done. Issues around disability need to be further elevated and we must ensure that people with disabilities are fully integrated into society.
There is also a need for introspection on attitudes and how these attitudes are barriers to the equal opportunities. It requires a commitment from all South Africans to consciously deal with the discrimination within our communities.
An area that has long challenged us is the representation of people with disabilities in the workplace. The Employment Equity Act targets two percent of our workforce; however the latest Employment Equity Commission’s Annual report shows that both private and public institutions fall far short of our target.
Actions like that of the North West province, which recently announced plans to accelerate employment of persons with disabilities, will help us achieve our targets. In terms of their plan, close to 1 200 more people with disabilities are targeted for employment by the provincial administration within the next 10 months.
While our laws have been enacted to promote people with disabilities, they should not be viewed by the private and public sector simply as a compliance issue.
Equality for people with disabilities must become a lived reality to enable a societal shift that will ensure people with disabilities fully contribute to the country’s socio-economic growth and development.
As a society we must not only support people with disabilities but also act to prevent people from becoming disabled. Every year thousands of lives are forever changed due to accidents on our roads. Surviving victims often sustain severe injuries and may be faced with lifetime incapacity.
We can prevent this by simply changing our behaviour on the roads, particularly as the festive season approaches and many people will be traveling to their holiday destinations.
Government is unwavering in its commitment to uplift and improve the lives of disabled members of our society. All sectors must play a meaningful role in breaking the physical, social, economic and attitudinal barriers that people with disabilities face.
South Africa is known for its commitment to human rights and the promotion of dignity for all. The time has come to harness this spirit and ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to the fruits of our hard-won democracy.
Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)