During apartheid South Africans with disabilities were discriminated against, neglected and marginalised. At the dawn of our democracy, former President Nelson Mandela highlighted that we will build an inclusive society which will respect the human rights and dignity of all its citizens.
"The new South Africa we are building should be accessible and open to everyone. Disabled children are equally entitled to an exciting and brilliant future. We must see to it that we remove the obstacles: poor access to facilities; poor education; lack of transport; lack of funding or unavailability of equipment. Only then will the rights of the disabled to equal opportunities become a reality," he said.
As part of addressing the ills from the past, our Constitution ensures that every South African with a disability has the right to a life without discrimination and be treated as an equal citizen.
In the past month, this Department, in partnership with civil society, celebrated National Disability Rights Awareness Month by taking stock of the progress we have made as a country to secure and advance the interests of people with disabilities.
Since 1994 government has strived to address barriers which keep people with disabilities from reaching their full potential. One such challenge is language for people with hearing disabilities. The Department is currently working with other departments across government to introduce South African Sign Language (SASL) as the 12th official language.
The Department of Basic Education has also recognised the importance of sign language in schools and from next year all Deaf learners nationally will be taught in SASL at home language level.
To improve access to Braille material, South Africa is enforcing the Marrakesh Treaty which was signed by 51 countries in June. It allows for copyrighted books to be reproduced in Braille and the import and export of such materials.
In addition, there has been a shift in government to produce more documents in Braille. During National Disability Rights Awareness Month, the Minister of Home Affairs Naledi Pandor handed over Braille Smart ID cards to visually impaired learners. “This will enable blind people to easily recognise the card,” she said.
The National Senior Certificates (NSC) is also now available in Braille to all blind and visually impaired South Africans who successfully completed their NSC. One of the first recipients, Charles Klaasen from the Class of 2012 praised the new initiative during a ceremony in November. “I am happy that I will no longer have to ask people to read my results for me. I can read them for myself,” he said.
Another positive step was the establishment of the Higher and Further Education Disability Services Association last year to increase the number of tertiary students with disabilities. This non-profit organisation assists students with disability services at higher and further education institutions. Furthermore, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme has revised its funding guidelines to support these students.
Government is also committed to ensure that South Africans with disabilities have equal access to job opportunities. We have therefore set a target to reach 2 per cent of public servants with disabilities by 2015 and are currently implementing measures to reach it.
Moreover, government has introduced a disability grant for adults that are unlikely to find employment or have limited sources of income. An additional grant for those South Africans which acquire a disability to enable them to make their homes more accessible has also been introduced. Another great achievement by the Department was to ensure that parents of disabled children are now able to claim disability related expenses from their tax returns.
Although public transport remains a barrier, improvements are being made by the Department of Transport. As part of this, the Bus Rapid Transit system and the Gautrain were designed to ensure that its user friendly towards people with disabilities.
During National Disability Rights Awareness Month, government also raised its concern about stereotypes attached to people with disabilities. I still believe that we need to break the barriers of terminology and how we refer to people with disabilities especially those who suffer from albinism.
To specifically address the myths and stereotypes about albinism, the department hosted the first Conference for People with Albinism, in partnership with the Albinism Society of South Africa, traditional healers and community leaders at the end of October.
As National Disability Rights Awareness Month draws to a close, we can proudly say that over the last 19 years we have made great advances to restore the dignity and improvethe lives of people with disabilities. However, more work remains and government, businesses and communities need to work together to ensure we create a truly inclusive society.
Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu is the Deputy Minister of Department of Women Children and people with Disabilities