Brief history of disability activism

With various days to commemorate disability rights in November and December, here is a short history of disability activism in South Africa

To honour the national Disability Rights Awareness Month (DRAM), which was celebrated from November 3 to December 3, and the International Day for People with Disabilities (celebrated on 3 December), we took a look at the history of disability, specifically disability activism, in South Africa.

Despite the vast number of people from all races, genders, and backgrounds with disabilities, the fight for better rights as a collective community is relatively young. Some disability organisations formed in the late 70s. For example, the QuadPara Association of South Africa (QASA) was established by a group of quadriplegics in 1978.

However, the national organisations that included several types of disabilities only sprung up several years later. The Disabled People South Africa (DPSA), for example, was established in 1984.

While Apartheid divided the South African people, people with disabilities from all races, cultures and ages were oppressed at the time (albeit to varying degrees). Colleen Howell and her team details the oppression in their research paper, A History of the Disability Rights Movement in South Africa:

“Under apartheid, the experiences of people with disabilities were also the experiences of a deeply divided people living in a profoundly unequal society. The lived experiences of black and white people with disabilities under apartheid were very different and reflected the general inequalities between white and black people in South Africa.

“For the majority of black people with disabilities, their lives were about struggling on a daily basis to cope with the poverty, deprivation and violence of the apartheid system, a struggle compounded by their disability. However, it is important to recognise that under apartheid all people with disabilities, black and white, were discriminated against and marginalised because of their disability and had very limited access to fundamental-economic rights such as employment, education and appropriate health and welfare services.”

“Despite their relatively privileged position in relation to black people with disabilities at the time, [the experience of] white people with disabilities was one of being dependent on a health and welfare system run by people without disabilities. It was a system where professionals spoke on their behalf and generally created conditions in which people with disabilities were ‘cared for’, often in institutions separate from society, rather than living independently, integrated into mainstream society.”

With the fall of apartheid, more disability organisations emerged to empower the disability community. Today, people with disabilities have much better access to healthcare, employment and educational ventures.

QASA, for example, has spent the last half-century empowering its members through its programmes. The QASA Work Readiness Programme upskills people with disabilities to enter the formal work environment, while the Driving Ambitions programmes supports members to obtain their driver’s licence and independence.

While strides have been made, there is still a long way to go to ensure an inclusive and equal society for people with disabilities. There is still a large portion of the disability community who are excluded from work opportunities; who don’t have access to adequate healthcare; and who earn R2 500 or less per month. But with awareness and organisations fighting for a better future, there is hope.

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