Guest Column

Don't leave people with disabilities behind

2018-09-06 13:22
Wheel chair bound

Wheel chair bound (iStock)

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Bongani Mapumulo

"You can judge a nation by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens." This quote has been credited to a variety of prominent historic figures such as Aristotle and Mahatma Ghandi. It has also evolved with time and has been applied in differing contexts. 

Within the South African context, former president Thabo Mbeki also made reference to it. He wrote that one of the yardsticks by which to measure a society's respect for human rights, and to evaluate its level of maturity and generosity of spirit, is the status it accords to the most vulnerable members of society such as disabled people, senior citizens and children. 

Furthermore, he added that the concept of a caring society is strengthened when we recognise that disabled people enjoy the same rights as everyone else and that their quality of life should be promoted.

This vignette, written only three years into South Africa's democracy, relates to the importance of addressing the inequalities in physical abilities amongst the country's citizens. We are much deeper into democracy today and it has been hailed as a system that should be celebrated by all South Africans. Civil liberties have improved self-expression and stimulated desires amongst minorities to participate in the decisions affecting their lives. 

These are some of the aspects that define the norms of our political and social order in 2018. Such democratic ideals have also been integrated into the way government institutions and state-funded educational institutions such as universities are modelled.

However, the question is: to what extent has this changed the lives of people with disabilities as they navigate different spheres of society?

I would like to reflect on this issue by looking at what's happening within our education environment. As a student with a disability, I followed with great interest the recent launch of the revised Disability Access Policy at my institution, Stellenbosch University. This policy aims to highlight ways that can guide the university on the path to becoming universally accessible for students, staff and visitors with disabilities. 

It embodies familiar principles that emphasize the importance of human dignity, inclusivity, social justice and equal opportunity which are all aligned with the institution's broader vision. Also, from a legislative framework perspective, the policy acknowledges the need to transform as outlined by the Education White Paper 6 on building an inclusive education and training system. 

The White Paper emphasises an important requirement for a paradigm shift to be made. This is a shift that seeks to move away from the dominant and persistent focus on individualising, professionalising and depoliticising disability that is ascribed to by the medical model.

Instead, the medical model is being replaced with the social model of understanding of disability, which entails advocating for adapting the environment instead of the individual adapting to the environment. This loosely means that the education system should be equipped with a complete capacity to respond to the broadest range of barriers to learning, including different special needs. 

With this idea in mind, great strides have been made towards an inclusive curriculum. For instance, the Complimentary Studies module in our Faculty of Engineering has been one way in which the consciousness of transforming spaces has been broadcasted and identified as a means of reimagining inclusivity from a spatial and technological design point of view.

As we celebrate Casual Day on 7 September, it would be good to once again reflect on the importance of building an inclusive society that recognises the everyday struggles of people with disabilities. This year, in particular, has been a rather tragic but introspective year for the disability sector. The Basic Education Department's most recent slogan "No child left behind" has been received as rather ironic and a form of empty rhetoric. 

One of the reasons for this is that early this year, the South African Human Rights Commission finalised an investigation and released a report into a fire that tragically killed three deaf learners in their sleep at the North West School for the Deaf back in August 2014. Twenty-three other children were injured after they jumped from the first floor of the hostel to escape the fire. A further 54 pupils were admitted to hospital. The doors to their hostel had been locked, apparently in attempt to make up for the absence of after-hour care. The report tells us that this was not the first such incident.

This tragedy shows us that there are still significant systemic deficiencies in South Africa's "inclusive" education system. It also says a lot about the dangerous living conditions people with disabilities are still vulnerable and exposed to. It is also an indication of what happens when individuals with particular disabilities are expected to fit into environments that do not respond to their needs. 

Incidents like these highlight the urgency to transform spaces so they do not continue to be disabling and violating to the most vulnerable members of our society. When it comes to education, one size does not fit all. One does not change the child but the environment. On this Casual Day, we shouldn't just be an 'everyday hero', but also 'lend a hand' and see to it that people with disabilities are fully integrated into all spheres of society.

- Bongani Mapumulo is a final year BA student in Social Dynamics and Head of the Disabled Students' Society at Stellenbosch University. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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