Disablism – an extra burden for South Africa’s most vulnerable children
Dignity is a basic human right. A violation thereof cuts us at our human core. This should motivate us to protect the right to dignity of not only ourselves, but of every person. Yet, according to the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities in South Africa (NCPD), protecting the dignity of South Africa’s children with disabilities is not currently very high on the national agenda.
According to UNICEF, “children with disabilities are one of the most marginalized and excluded groups of children, experiencing widespread violations of their rights.” In developing countries, like South Africa, where poverty and inequality are serious problems, children with disabilities are even more vulnerable.
Therina Wentzel, National Director of the NCPD, says that childhood disability is a neglected and serious national problem. “Disablism describes the discrimination and prejudice that persons with disabilities face,” she says. “In South Africa, disablism robs many children of their most basic rights. The term needs to be heard and understood in the same manner as sexism and racism. Just as there is a need for education and awareness around racism and sexism, and confrontation of these injustices, so we need to make people aware of disablism and confront instances of it in society.”
UNICEF puts it like this: “Too often, children with disabilities are defined and judged by what they lack rather than what they have. Their exclusion and invisibility serve to render them uniquely vulnerable, denying them respect for their dignity, their individuality, even their right to life itself.”
She notes that NCPD is becoming increasingly concerned about the non-provisioning for children with disabilities in the South African childcare and protection system. “A good example is the non-provisioning of assistive devices and nappies by the National Department of Health. Assistive devices are part of primary healthcare and the Constitution obligates the government to provide them,” she says. “And yet, when NCPD ran a nationwide poll, we found that all provinces reported under provisioning of assistive devices by the government health care system, resulting in at least hundreds of persons with disabilities having to go without them.”
She says that the consequences of having to go without these essential devices are tragic, severely impacting on the quality of life of persons with disabilities. “A simple example is nappies,” she says. “Toilet hygiene and health are a fundamental base of human dignity that many people take for granted, but in South Africa, we know that countless children have to use unsafe pit toilets. And people agree that this is wrong and needs to change. What many don’t consider, however, is that children with disabilities also lack access to basic toilet hygiene. Many are unable to take care of their own toilet needs, and so they require nappies on an ongoing basis. Nappies are expensive and often children’s carers struggle to afford them. Children end up wet or soiled, which undermines their dignity and can comprise their health and well-being. Many of these children with disabilities are living in extreme poverty or social isolation, which are both results and causes of disablism, and their story is not being told.”
NCPD campaigns to raise funds for nappies through its Nappy Run™ initiative, as well as promoting awareness of the effects of disablism on children with disabilities.
“Disablism results in societal barriers that exclude persons with disabilities from facilities, services and structures, as well as social, cultural, religious and recreational opportunities,” says Wentzel. “For children with disabilities, who are already a particularly vulnerable group, this results in an additional burden.”
She notes that the White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was approved by Cabinet on 9 December 2015, explicitly commits to creating “a non-sexist, discrimination-free, equitable and inclusive society that protects and develops the human potential of its children, a society for all where persons with disabilities enjoy the same rights as their fellow citizens, and where all citizens and institutions share equal responsibility of creating such a society.” And yet South Africa seems to have made little progress towards achieving this goal since the paper was first presented.
“It’s time we had a frank conversation about disablism and what we can each do to dismantle it – government and civil society together. We urgently need to address the rights violations of children with disabilities. As the late Nelson Mandela said, ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ That includes all our children.”