Disability Rights Awareness Month (DRAM) 2020 – which runs annually from the 3rd of November until the 3rd of December – comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on everyone. The South African Federation Mental Health (SAFMH) as an organisation that focuses on upholding and protecting the rights of people with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities, believes in the building inclusive communities where all persons with disabilities enjoy equal inclusion in every area of their lives.
According to the World Health Organisation, persons with disabilities make up 15% of the world’s population. While the COVID-19 pandemic has been seen as an “equaliser” of sorts, which affected populations across all demographics and socioeconomic statuses, persons with disabilities have been left more vulnerable to the harsh impacts of the virus. Because persons with disabilities generally have more healthcare needs than other groups, they have been left more vulnerable to the impact of low quality or inaccessible healthcare services than others, at a time when most healthcare services were reprioritised to fight against COVID-19 (United Nations 2020). According to the World Bank (2020) malnutrition, inadequate access to education and health care, unsafe working conditions, a polluted environment, and lack of access to safe water and sanitation are some of the risk dangers that expose poor people to increased disability risk. One of the adverse realities brought by the COVID-19 has been pushing most people into poverty as livelihood were lost as countries introduced strict lockdown rules.
While the unprecedented times we find ourselves in as a result of COVID-19 have laid bare how such global outbreaks disproportionately affect marginalised groups, including persons to disabilities, most of the challenges faced by persons with disabilities during this time are sadly not new or unique. Historically, persons with disabilities have always experienced side-lining and discrimination that makes it difficult for them to fully participate in community life and economic activities.
This year the South African government’s chosen theme for DRAM, “Together Building Communities Inclusive of Disability Rights” reminds us of the important work that is needed to remove barriers that prevent persons with disabilities from playing a meaningful role in society and asserting their rights. According to the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities (DWYPD), some of the challenges faced by persons with disabilities can be “attributed to the entrenched negative beliefs and attitudes about the causes of disability; about the capabilities of persons with disabilities; and about the need to protect persons with disabilities through segregated programmes”. Not only does this deny these individuals their basic human rights, but it also prohibits persons with disabilities from partaking in personal developmental activities such as education and employment opportunities.
Data shared through the DWYPD’s concept document from over 20 years of employment equity reporting, shows that the representation of persons with disabilities has remained extremely low in South Africa. Further analysis indicates that the promotion of equal opportunities and fair treatment in employment, including the redress of disadvantages in employment experienced by persons with disabilities, remains significantly unchanged and that persons with disabilities as a designated group remain grossly under-represented. This continues to be a trend despite South Africa’s Employment Equity Act, which seeks to promote fair treatment for persons with disabilities in the workplace, calling for swift reform of current legislation in favour of more stringent regulations.
Women, older people and children are disproportionately affected by disability, more so than any other groups, which also leaves them vulnerable to abuse and heightened levels of stigma. Tight national regulations are needed to shield persons with disabilities with increased vulnerability from abuse and increase their access to institutions where they will be able to report atrocities committed against them.
SAFMH is of the view that the COVID-19 pandemic, albeit uncompromising, has provided valuable lessons and opportunities for our government to be accountable and increase the representation of persons with disabilities in institutions and government departments as a sign of a commitment to changing the status quo. As an organisation we have always supported the principles of the slogan “nothing about us without us” and we believe that persons with disabilities hold great insight into policy interventions needed to realising building communities inclusive of disability rights.
References are available on request.
Photo: ANSA Central – Flickr