International Day Of Persons With Disability

SAFMH News Room

The Year of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke – Create and Realise an Inclusive Society Upholding Rights of Persons with Disabilities

International Day of Persons with Disability (IDPD) is commemorated annually on the 3rd of December. This year, the South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) will be focusing on the South African theme of creating and realising an inclusive society upholding rights of persons with disabilities, which was declared by the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities (DWYPD). In keeping with this theme, we join national and international efforts in calling for efforts to move persons with disabilities from the periphery by maximising access and effortless participation into the formal education system and mainstream economy. We must strive to foster inclusivity of persons with disabilities in all spheres of life.

Understanding disability as being inclusive of psychosocial and intellectual disabilities

Untreated mental illness is the leading cause of years living with disabilities (YLD) around the world. That means that out of all the illnesses, including diabetes, hypertension, and cancer, mental health accounts for the most disability-related outcomes because of its far-reaching impacts on people’s lives and wellbeing. This is why we must consider mental illness in all conversations, programming, and policy around disability. We know that people with physical disabilities are more likely to live in poverty and to experience higher rates of violence, neglect and abuse. This is compounded when the person has a dual diagnosis of mental illness or intellectual disability.

This IDPD, SAFMH encourages all organisations to follow the CDC and include intellectual and psychosocial disabilities in their definition and understanding of ‘disability’. This will help ensure that policies and programmes for reasonable accommodation also include mental health related disabilities.

At SAFMH, we always include psychosocial and intellectual disabilities in our work. For us, it is vital that mental health is at the forefront of conversations about disability. While not all organisations explicitly recognise the mental health component in the definition of ‘disability’, the Center for Diseases Control (CDC) says a disability is any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions). The distinction between activity limitation and participation restrictions is important. While the former may be due to the individual’s ability, the latter is as a result of society creating barriers that restrict participation. We must work on creating spaces which are more inclusive so that different abled people are not excluded.

COVID-19 compounded the challenges people living with disabilities face

In March 2021, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Regional Office for Southern Africa and the DWYPD commissioned a qualitative research study on the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on persons with disabilities in South Africa. The study highlights experiences of persons with disabilities during lockdown as well as the challenges faced by persons with disabilities in accessing information, education, healthcare, social services, economic opportunities, transport, and safety and security. For example, special school busses for children living with disabilities were not able to operate due to COVID-19 safety concerns. As a result, many children living with disabilities who cannot access public transport, have been forced to remain at home. One teacher shared:

“We just cannot safely operate the school buses. Our children have severe disabilities and have to have carers and assistants on the busses to keep them safe. We don’t have space to social distance and have the funds to santise our busses.”

The report also argues that a disability-inclusive COVID-19 response and recovery plan will better serve everyone and ensure that no one is left behind. Participants offered a number of recommendations for how COVID-19 responses could be more inclusive. For example, another participant shared:

Having interpreters available on site at hospitals or at least available immediately online via WhatsApp video call etc. to assist in communicating with medical personnel will be such a great help when we get to medical facilities on our own the personnel do not understand what we say nor do we understand them or the doctors. Training ER medical personnel with basic Sign Language will also be good.”

Even when the world is not experiencing a global pandemic, persons with disabilities have greater healthcare needs and are more likely to experience poor health compared to persons without disabilities. In order to provide relevant and suitable accommodations and healthcare, persons with disabilities and their representative organisations need to be consulted and involved in all plans and policies. This is true at all times, and it becomes even more urgent when the world is facing a healthcare crisis on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic. The voices of persons with disabilities need to be heard to ensure that their human rights are not overlooked or excluded.

This IDPD, SAFMH encourages all sectors of society, especially governmental departments, to follow the recommendations listed in the March 2021 report. Specifically:

  • Acknowledgement and involvement of persons with disabilities
    • A parent of a child with a disability commented that “if government had remembered they [persons with disabilities] existed would have been a good start.”
    • Another person shared: “I’m grateful that most people I encounter have been pretty considerate but I would just love the people higher up [government] to understand that people like us need to be protected.”
  • Inclusion in planning
    • Extending from the lack of acknowledgement described above, most persons with disabilities felt excluded in COVID-19 planning and interventions
  • Developing partnerships to support NGOs
    • Many NGOs and CBOs supporting persons with disabilities expressed frustration at the lack of involvement, engagement and partnering between themselves and government departments.
    • One participant recommended that partnerships with organisations, specifically allocated resources (e.g. food parcels etc.), support for NPOs who lost funding, and for the government to resource this.
  • Provisioning of resources
    • Some participants expressed that they felt persons with disabilities were excluded from resources. A participant shared: “They [government] could have helped us. Many children slept hungry cause their parents doesn’t work. No PPE equipment for us to assist. No money, no food, no assistance.”
    • Home-based services were requested by some participants with physical disabilities who were not able to get to healthcare facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Providing accessible COVID-19 information and support
    • Other participants felt that government should have targeted persons with disabilities and provided them with more COVID-19 related information and support. Participants requested: “more online information and guidance if you find yourself stranded with a disability. We need to workshop or receive training to educate people with disabilities about COVID-19, or any general disease.”
    • Information and communication must be made available and be offered in all accessible formats to all persons with disabilities (braille, audio-visual, large prints, easy-to-read, electronic and print media, social media, online education and training, sign language interpretation services, close-captioning, subtitles etc.)
  • Prioritise safety and protection of persons with disabilities especially:
    • In institutional settings and care centres
    • Women and girls with disabilities experiencing gender-based violence during the state of national disaster
  • Access to employment and economic opportunities
    • It is recommended that government must ensure that persons with disabilities benefits equally to all announced employment and economic relief measures during the national state of disaster
    • Employment environments need to provide reasonable accommodations to those that require it, especially to those with comorbidities
  • Access to social services, specifically:
    • Provisioning of psychosocial support services
    • Provisioning of social grants and social relief of distress
    • Provisioning of food parcels
  • Access to health, specifically:
    • Provisioning of PPE
    • Screening methods and procedures must be accessible
    • Healthcare information must be accessible
    • Transportation barriers need to be addressed
  • Access to education, specifically:
    • Accessible online education including assistive devices, data and devices
    • Prioritise special schools and school hostels
    • Safety and protection of leaners

It is important to remember that help is available though. Whilst we understand those who might be facing discrimination from their employer would follow different protocols compared to those who might face it from a healthcare provider or their family, in general, any violations of disability rights can be reported to The South African Human Rights Commission.

You can also reach out to the SAFMH Help Desk via telephone or email if you have a specific query. Through this desk we facilitate referrals to mental health and legal resources for persons with mental disabilities and their families, we also assist these individuals with information on residential facilities, how to access treatment and support, and with information on mental health processes and procedures and we connect people with the relevant organisations in their province. You can reach out to us via our enquiries Help Desk at +27 (0)11 718 1852 or send an email to and we can then refer you to the necessary services you need.

Image by Brett Sayles, Pexels

Subscribe to Our Newsletter


COVID-19 Corona Virus South African Resource Portal

Please visit the COVID-19 Corona Virus South African Resource Portal at Alternatively contact the Emergency Hotline: 0800 029 999 or the WhatsApp Support Line: 0600 123456