Apartheid by design: Disabled people in PMB

2009-08-19 00:00

ONCE upon a time in South Africa, buildings had separate entrances and facilities for people of different races. The practice was outlawed as discriminatory along with the policy that created it: apartheid.

That discredited philosophy was replaced with a Constitution hailed for its commitment to human rights that is also enshrined in the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000. Despite this, another kind of apartheid still operates: discrimination against people with disabilities. Inaccessible environments have been called “apartheid by design”.

Research reportedly indicates that disability affects one in three households in the country. People with disabilities that are obvious include those with sight and hearing impairment, who are intellectually challenged, the elderly, the mobility impaired and those who are temporarily disabled. However, a host of other people with less-recognised disabilities also suffer because of buildings and facilities that are inaccessible, for example, those who are pushing a pram, pregnant, illiterate, and those with “unseen” disabilities or diseases like kidney or heart failure, lung disease, diabetes or HIV/Aids.

To see how public facilities in Pietermaritzburg measure up against the law that requires them to be accessible, The Witness toured the city with two people who use wheelchairs: disability activist Jettros Mhlongo, left a paraplegic by a shooting incident in 1998 (see “District Disabled” article), and Pieter Breytenbach, who suffered a stroke in 2001, and his partner, Michael O’Flattery.

After being stared at, sworn at, nearly run over and left feelingalienated and excluded, I challenge the authorities to spend a few hours trying to negotiate this so-called “City of Choice” of ours pushing a pram, blindfolded or in a wheelchair.

What about the law?

THE regulations that govern accessibility and the built environment fall under the Building Standards Act of 1977. The national building regulations, specifically, Part S, lay down requirements for the design and construction of buildings to make them accessible to people with a range of disabilities. These requirements cover parking, ramps, lifts, doors, changes in floor level, toilets, lighting and signage. Design that aims to cater for everyone is called “universal” or “inclusive” design, previously “barrier-free” design.

However, according to disability activist Guy Davies of Disability Solutions in Cape Town, the regulations “cover access poorly. I would suggest that the Equality Act has made almost all of these irrelevant as it outlaws any discrimination due to disability. This would include access.

“The onus is on any public building’s owner to prove that he or she does not discriminate against any person due to his or her disability … If there is poor or no access, then the owner would be in breach of this law.”

Davies said that if establishment owners are found to discriminate against a person due to his or her disability, then they face the same law and repercussions that they would, had they discriminated, on the basis of skin colour. We need to educate and empower people, so that they are as offended by blatant discrimination towards people with disabilities as they would be by racial discrimination.

“People with disabilities do not want special treatment, we just want to be able to play our rightful part in society.”



Left: Outside the A.S. Chetty municipal building: To get Pieter Breytenbach (right) into his wheelchair, Michael O'Flattery must park his car partly in the flow of traffic.




District Disabled: 'We are tired of empty promises'

JETTROS Mhlongo, leader of the Our Future Disabled Group said: “We are tired of empty promises. Although the concerns of disabled people have been raised before, nothing has been done.” The organisation has more than 200 members who live in the Pietermaritzburg area.

Right: A securty guard helps Jettros Mhlongo to get to an ATM to draw money.

In May, The Witness reported that the group had presented a petition on the plight of Umgungundlovu’s disabled population to the premier’s office, which has an Office on the Status of Disabled Persons (OSDP) linked to the OSDP in the Office of the State President. The memorandum highlighted the exclusion of disabled people in the allocation of RDP housing, access to government buildings and hospitals, transportation and job creation.

On World Disability Day in December last year, protesters had raised similar concerns with the uMgungundlovu District mayor, Yusuf Bhamjee, who committed himself to resolving the issues raised.

Mhlongo reported that although he had received letters from both the premier’s office and district municipality acknowledging his organisation’s correspondence, their complaints had still not been addressed.

He believes that the best way to address the needs of disabled people would be “to have a ‘Disability Desk’ in every government department, with a disabled person working on it. That would make sure our voices are heard.”

The district municipal manager, Sbu Khuzwayo, said that the issues in the disabled group’s petition were mostly relevant to other government departments, such as housing, road infrastructure, education, welfare and health. The district had forwarded these concerns to the relevant departments and would monitor their responses.

“We will continue to play our co-ordinating role in ensuring that the issues of disabled people are comprehensively addressed through the establishment of a disability forum in due course. The district is working closely with the premier’s office, relevant government departments and the Msunduzi Municipality to make sure that issues raised in the memorandum are being addressed urgently,” he said.

The Witness sent a list of questions to the OSDP in the premier’s office. After three weeks, and follow-up contact, no response had been received.

Above: Disability activist, Jettros Mhlongo, says “This city is very unfriendly to disabled people.”

Above: Jettros Mhlongo negotiates the entrance to the new taxi rank on Jabu Ndlovu Street. To get into a taxi, he and his wheelchair must be lifted in by a driver's assistant.

Above: A worker has to come out to Jettros Mhlongo to take his fast-food order as the steps prevent him from going into the store.

Special parking discs: Where do you get them?

THE Association for the Physically Challenged (APC) issues discs on behalf of the Office of the Manager: Public Safety (Traffic and Security) in the Msunduzi Municipality. The APC provides application forms and a medical certificate that must be completed by a medical practitioner to certify that the applicant requires this special assistance. The discs permit motorists to use parkings for the disabled only if the disabled person is being transported in the car at that time. Those who use parkings for the disabled without displaying a disc can be prosecuted. Discs cost R45 and are valid for a year. Contact: APC 033 342 2768, 11 New England Road, Pietermaritzburg.

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