South Africans have been (justifiably) outraged by the fact that many schoolchildren are not able to learn because they do not have textbooks or toilets. Yet, for many children with disabilities, attending school or learning to read is impossible as they lack critical assistive devices, such as wheelchairs or hearing devices.
According to the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities in South Africa (NCPD), living without assistive devices severely impacts the quality of life of these children. While it is the responsibility of the Department of Health to supply assistive devices, the NCPD reports that its poll shows that there is underprovisioning across all nine provinces by the government healthcare system.
Some people are placed on waiting lists and often wait years for their devices, while others never receive a device. Wheelchair users who have to wait years for a chair will often struggle or never master basic manoeuvring skills to better control their wheelchair – something that is often taught in the first few months in rehabilitation.
Therina Wentzel-du Toit, national director of the NCPD, says: “Sometimes these assistive devices are in the form of essential supplies such as nappies. Children with disabilities going without nappies are deprived of their rights to health and hygiene, but also to freedom of movement, mobility, freedom of association and freedom to socialise.
“A child without a wheelchair is denied his or her right to mobility, which equates to denying the right to be functional, to play, to socialise, to access school (education) and to have optimal independence. An assistive device is essential for living, but the government treats it as if it is a nice-to-have item. The very right to life is undermined by not having an assistive device.”
In its Position Paper on the Under Provisioning of Assistive Devices for Persons with Disabilities by the State Health Care System, with specific reference to the Northern Cape, the NCPD notes that the Department of Health is failing dismally in providing wheelchairs according to need, especially customised wheelchairs tailored to children’s specific requirements.
“Without a wheelchair, a person with a mobility impairment is confined to a bed to such an extent that it is life-threatening. In fact, people have died as a direct result of having to go without wheelchairs,” the Paper reads.
According to a letter by Dorothy-Anne Howitson, vice-chairperson of the NCPD and disability rights activist residing in the Northern Cape, the waiting period for wheelchairs in 2016 was three years, with 957 people on the list. Howitson wrote that, on average, 70 new applications for wheelchairs were received each month.
Between May 2015 and June 2016, the names of 301 patients were taken off the waiting list, mostly due to death. She alleged that the deaths were mainly due to persons being immobile.
“It’s worth noting that the South African Human Rights Commission has compiled a legal opinion on the rights of persons with disabilities requiring wheelchairs. It categorically states that government is compelled under section 27 of the Constitution to provide wheelchairs as part of its obligation to provide essential healthcare services,” says Wentzel-du Toit.
She concludes: “The NCPD believes it is wholly unacceptable that provincial and district healthcare services do not have sufficient funding or adequate budgets to ensure the immediate provisioning of assistive devices as and when the needs arise. We call on government to deliver on its constitutional obligation to provide these devices, and on civil society to exert pressure on government until this obligation is fulfilled.”