In March, the disability sector called on government to ensure people with disabilities received the required support during the lockdown and are included in post-lockdown recovery plans. But has this been in vain?
It is no secret that people with disabilities are among the most marginalised groups. They have less access to important services, schooling and employment. The outbreak of the global coronavirus pandemic and the national lockdown has highlighted these gaps in access even more.
Many people with disabilities are even further marginalised. While businesses close and joblessness increases, many people with disabilities have little to no income. In addition, those with compromised immune systems or underlying illnesses are even more isolated as they stay home in an attempt to prevent infection. If infected, these individuals run the risk of falling severely ill.
As the number of infections rise in South Africa and the economy suffers, there are many concerns over the continued wellbeing of people with disabilities.
To address these concerns, the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, in partnership with disabilities organisations and researchers, hosted a webinar on Friday, May 22. The session started with various government departments reassuring delegates that inclusion is a top priority.
Hlengiwe Mkhize (above), deputy minister of the Presidency for Women, Youth and People with Disabilities, stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the inequalities in society. To address this, she pointed out that there is a need to provide skills and economic opportunities for people with disabilities.
After the opening address, various stakeholders from the industry had an opportunity to share some of their concerns.
Innocentia Mgijima, project manager at the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, spoke about the centre’s COVID-19 Disability Rights Monitor (DRM) initiative, which aims to gather information on the experiences of people with disabilities during the global pandemic through surveys. She shared some of the findings.
One of which was the challenge of accessing certain services and ensuring quality. People with disabilities, reportedly, struggled to access certain healthcare services that were not deemed as essential during lockdown, which included physical and occupational therapy. This was especially the case for people without medical aid.
Services related to assistive devices were also hard to come by, such as purchasing, replacing or repairing assistive devices.
While Mgijima didn’t speak directly to any cases of abuse or neglect, she did note the concern for people with disabilities in care facilities. As friends and family were unable to visit during the lockdown, the industry called on the government to ensure a quality service was being provided and that residents were receiving the correct care.
In addition, there was a concern about whether important information was being communicated to residents and staff as, according to Mgijima’s findings, some facilities only received communication through its management.
Looks Matoto, representing the Disabled People of South Africa (DPSA), raised concern over correctly sanitising assistive devices during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Assistive devices come in contact with the various surfaces that put the user at a greater risk of contracting the virus,” he noted.
While there are recommendations that encourage the regular cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, it is important to ensure that this is common knowledge and people with disabilities have access to the resources to clean their equipment frequently.
On behalf of children with disabilities
There were also some concerns raised about the health and safety of children with disabilities during the lockdown. Mgijima pointed to those essential workers who care for children with a disability. In some instances, there might be no place for the parent to leave the child. This might result in an older child taking care of their younger sibling – a dangerous scenario as the older might not be equipped for the responsibility.
There were also various concerns about the safety of students with disabilities when schools reopened. While the government did, towards the end of the webinar, express that measures would be put in place to assist students with disabilities, they were vague about the exact actions that will be taken.
Lisa Aziz, a member of the Presidency for Women, Youth and People with Disabilities, pointed out that students with disabilities run the risk of being left even further behind when schools close. Online classrooms or virtual learning might not be accessible to children with disabilities. She also highlighted that children with disabilities are at a greater risk of being abused.
An inclusive approach to the economy
Another very important topic of discussion was the financial wellbeing of people with disabilities during and post lockdown with a call to ensure that people with disabilities were included in the economy. As Aziz noted, people with disabilities are more vulnerable to poverty as the cost of a disability is high.
Those in the informal economy struggled to survive on their disability grant while people in the formal sector don’t have access to governmental support.
Matoto pointed out that people with disabilities, to a large extent, were completely overlooked with the special interventions such as government food relief schemes. “The people with disabilities who receive grants have been excluded,” he said. “A grant is not enough to curb the poverty of people with disabilities.”
To prevent further exclusion, the sector called on the government to include people with disabilities in the recovery of the economy. According to Matoto, a big obstacle in this inclusion is the belief that people with disabilities are only consumers.
“People with disabilities are seen as consumers and not as providers. We have people with disabilities who can be providers of masks, for example,” he said.
The dismal economic situation of many people with disabilities was not the only concern. The sector also highlighted the financial impact of the lockdown on nonprofit organisations.
Jace Nair, who represented the South African Disability Alliance (SADA) – including the QuadPara Association of South Africa (QASA), pointed out: “The financial sustainability of disability organisations is worsening. Corporate funding is declining as companies try to save themselves. Organisations also can’t provide direct services.” According to him, it was challenging for NPOs or NGOs to access relief funding.
To ensure better inclusion for people with disabilities during and post lockdown, the community suggested fast-tracking a Disability Act, which would provide accountability when disability rights were ignored. Matoto used a striking image in which he compared the response to the pandemic with a plane crash.
“The response to the pandemic was a scramble,” Matoto said in his address. “Everyone rushed to safety but forgot about the people with disability.” He pointed out that on a flight, it is the crew who will assist the people with disabilities.
“Who is the crew member in our instance that will come to their help? That crew member would be an Act. All responses to the pandemic would have been in relation to that Act,” Matoto said.
He continued, that post lockdown, there will be another scramble for resources as the economy begins to restore itself. When this happens, it will be important to ensure that people with disabilities are included.
“Without an Act, how do you ensure equity? In that scramble, not a thought will be left for people with disabilities. To ensure that this happens systematically, an Act is needed,” Matoto said.
The call for a Disability Act was second by Nair, who called the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic “uncoordinated” and “fragmented”. This, he argued, impacted on people with disabilities and could have been prevented with a Disability Act.
He also called for a task team with experts from the sector to assist the ministry with implementing practical measures to assist people with disabilities.
A disappointing response
Following all the presentations, the Presidency held a questions-and-answer session. Although the Department of Education and the Department of Social Development tried to answer some of the questions, most of the responses were vague or incomplete as the officials struggled with connectivity issues.
In the end, the Presidency promised to provide the sector with a report on the webinar. On the date of publishing, the ROLLING INSPIRATION team had not seen any such report.
In closing, Mkhize concluded the webinar by asking for a concrete briefing from each department. She stated that the Presidency had learned a lot from the report delivered by the United Nations on disability inclusion.
Although the conclusion to the webinar was somewhat disappointing, it did offer the industry an opportunity to voice their challenges and highlight some areas where improvements are needed desperately. Whether the government will step in to help is an entirely separate matter.