What about the plight of people with disabilities?

Dear President Ramaphosa,

Listening to your State of the Nation Address, I was once again proud to be a South African citizen. I was especially pleased that you addressed the scourge of discrimination, abuse and violence against women and children in our society and that you are committed to implement the decisions of the National Summit on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide.

But not once did you mention the plight of People with Disabilities, people – especially young people who as fellow South Africans also want to rise to your Thuma Mina call to realise the vision of a democratic, just and equitable society.

South Africa has approximately three million persons living with disabilities, equating to about 7.5% of the country’s population. Historically, people with disabilities have been excluded from the majority of meaningful activities in society, including access to education, health and economic opportunities. 

Disabilities are most often seen as medical defects that must be cured by doctors, a restrictive approach often referred to as the “medical model”. In most societies, people with disabilities are an oppressed minority, and are often seen as having a negative effect on society. In response to this systematic bias, disability advocates and researchers have called greater attention to the need to break down historic barriers that prevent people with disabilities from fully participating in mainstream activities, effectively promoting their inclusion as full members of society and empowering them to maximise their own level of self-determination.

In the SONA, you envision a South Africa in which every man, woman and child is provided with the opportunity and means to make a better life for themselves. Surely this vision should also embrace people with disabilities, not only to overcome the divisions between black and white, rich and poor, rural and urban, between sexes, sexual orientations and language groups, but also between the abled-bodied and disabled?

At a dinner in Davos during the recent World Economic Forum you used the term “the nine lost years”, referring to a period when we as a country could have done so much better. This is not only true on a social-economic level, but also when it comes to the plight of people living with disabilities. I was appointed to the presidential task team under your predecessor, and during this nine lost years, we only met once. 

As you are aware, I am a staunch advocate for the rights of this marginalised community. By invoking the words “daring greatly” of Theodore Roosevelt towards the end of SONA 2019, we should dare to do more, recollect the losses of the past, and set out on a new course where people with disabilities are embraced as full human beings and active citizens of this country.

Kindest regards
Marlene le Roux
Chief executive of Artscape and recipient of the prestigious Commonwealth Point of Light award