80% of persons with disabilities live in poverty
As the country observes Disability Rights Awareness Month (3 November – 3 December), the issue of the socio-economic empowerment of persons with disabilities has once again come under the spotlight.
According to the United Nations, 80 percent of the world’s population of persons with disabilities live in poverty. In Africa, as observed by the African Studies Centre, as many as 70-80 percent of working age persons with disabilities are unemployed.
The vast majority of Africans with disabilities are excluded from schools and opportunities for work, virtually guaranteeing that they live as the poorest of the poor. School enrolment for children with disabilities is estimated at no more than 5-10 percent in the Continent, according to the African Studies Centre.
The social stigma associated with disability results in marginalisation and isolation, often leading to begging as the sole means of survival.
The staggering unemployment and poverty rates among persons with disabilities is a reminder of how much work still needs to be done to protect this sector of society. Persons with disabilities still face incredible challenges when it comes to obtaining employment and becoming financially stable.
Disability is both a cause and consequence of poverty. It is a cause because it can lead to job loss and reduced earnings, barriers to education and skills development, significant additional expenses, and many other challenges that can lead to economic hardship.
It is also a consequence because poverty can limit access to health care and preventive services, and increase the likelihood that a person lives and works in an environment that may adversely affect health.
For most adults, work is a fundamental component of life, which confers status and economic security and opens up social networks.
However, due to various barriers, many persons with disabilities are not able to develop to their full potential. They are often viewed as being unproductive and a burden, but this need not be the case.
Since 1994, the new democratic government has orchestrated a paradigm shift away from the one that understood disability to be a personal tragedy which required a health and welfare response to ‘fix’ the person and situation. The new democratic order has placed the rights of persons with disabilities at the centre of the national reconstruction and development agenda.
The democratic government of South Africa has prioritised efforts to ensure relevant and accessible skills development programmes for persons with disabilities, coupled with equal opportunities for their productive and gainful employment.
The National Development Plan (NDP) acknowledges that many persons with disabilities are not able to develop to their full potential due to a range of barriers, namely physical, information, communication and attitudinal barriers and states that “Disability must be integrated into all facets of planning, recognising that there is no one-size-fits-all approach”.
An analysis of the NDP as a strategy to reduce inequality, eradicate poverty and promote employment of persons with disabilities, has been conducted and is being integrated into broader planning processes of government with the aim of strengthening equitable outcomes for persons with disabilities.
With regards to housing, certain categories of persons with disabilities who qualify for a housing subsidy receive additional amounts to improve their houses with special additions such as paving and ramps to the outside doors, grab rails in bathrooms, kick plates on doors and visible door bells for households with Deaf members.
Efforts to break the generational cycle of poverty through access to basic education have also been accelerated. The country’s inclusive education programme has enabled expansion of facilities for children with disabilities in public ordinary (mainstream) schools.
The number of full-service schools (FSSs) – schools that provide a higher level of support to enable children with disabilities to access the curriculum – grew from 30 in 2008/09 to 513 in 2010/11. In 2012 there were more than 110 300 learners with disabilities attending ordinary public schools. In addition, there were 423 special needs schools nationwide catering for approximately 105 000 learners.
Other areas for improving access to socio-economic opportunities for persons with disabilities that the government is working on include access to public transport, promoting South African Sign Language as well as improving access to braille material. The year 2015, for example, saw the introduction of South African Sign Language in the curriculum of schools for Deaf learners.
Government’s social security protection programme has played a considerable role in shielding persons with disabilities from poverty. As at the end of September 2015, 1 102 354 persons with disabilities benefited from the disability grant.
Government is however the first to acknowledge that its efforts to promote socio-economic empowerment of persons with disabilities over the past 21 years have not yielded the results it hoped for. Persons with disabilities and their families in South Africa remain among the poorest of the poor, despite affirmative policies and laws that promote skills development and employment of persons with disabilities, preferential procurement for persons with disabilities, etcetera.
A study conducted by the Department of Social Development to determine the actual cost of disability to households, the cost of loss of opportunity, and the cost of seeking opportunity, is beginning to unearth the missing links in the social protection net. The study, a world first, is providing government with indicators of the areas that need to be prioritised to reduce the economic vulnerability of persons with disabilities and their families.
Disability Rights Awareness Month aims to increase awareness about the rights of persons with disabilities as equal citizens among society in general as well as to accelerate equal access to socio-economic opportunities for persons with disabilities by making information available and accessible. Through the campaign, government also aims to harness the abilities of persons with disabilities as active participants in South Africa’s development.
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