South Africa slowly shifts mindset toward disabled

Some of South Africa's 4.8 million disabled are now benefiting from legislation.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Twenty-five years ago, when polio left young Sam Mashilane partially crippled, disabilities in this part of the world were considered some sort of punishment. People such as Mr. Mashilane were often hidden away as shameful and almost always denied education. In the eyes of state and family, they were welfare burdens who would always depend on others.

Today, as the switchboard operator saves money for his upcoming marriage, Mashilane represents a new reality for many South Africans with disabilities. The end of apartheid ushered in a slew of policies designed to reintegrate blacks into the economy, and the major beneficiaries include the disabled.

The result, say advocates for the disabled, has been a transformation in the government's approach to South Africa's 4.8 million disabled, and a slow but welcome shift in public attitudes toward people with disabilities.

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"We've been trying to introduce a mindset that saw disabilities as a human-rights and development issue, and away from it being a health and social-welfare issue," says Patrick Molala, development director for the South African National Council for the Blind. "We said, if there's going to be a settlement in this country that empowers previously disadvantaged groups, that settlement couldn't leave out the disabled."

After Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994, a whole corpus of legislation was rolled out to try to level the economic playing field. Companies were required to set employment goals for disadvantaged groups and submit plans showing the government how they planned to meet those goals. Special levies were imposed to fund training and education programs for people who had been denied education under apartheid. The disabled were included in most of this legislation, and companies are now legally obligated to meet disabled employment quotas, usually set at about 2 percent of the workforce.

Some in the disability movement are targeting disabilities within the context of economic empowerment.

"Black empowerment started off targeting race, then extended to women. To a large extent, we've extended it to disabilities as well," says Mike duToit, CEO of the Disabilities Employment Concerns Trust, which invests in companies and then uses its position as a shareholder to encourage disabled employment.

By becoming stakeholders in companies, Mr. duToit's company is using economic rather than political pressure to encourage progressive employment policies toward the disabled.

To be sure, change has been slow, despite progress on the legal front and unique projects like duToit's. According to Disability Resource Solutions, a job placement company for the disabled, 99 percent of people with disabilities here are still unemployed. And few companies are near achieving their disabled employment quotas, which they have until 2004 to meet.

Disabled advocates acknowledge they are facing an uphill battle. Although the disabled have many of the same disadvantages as blacks and women, such as lack of education and job experience, they often face a host of other challenges that make finding employment doubly hard. Few buildings in South Africa are wheelchair ac- cessible, and public transportation networks are not designed for the disabled.

And in a country where the official unemployment rate hovers around 25 percent and is likely higher, many employers are hesitant to hire people they believe will require expensive workplace adaptations or may be less productive than able-bodied employees.

"Companies sort of assume that it's better not to look at employing disabled people, because they think that special accommodations in terms of technology will be too expensive," said Lorna Fick, managing director of Disability Resource Solutions. "The root of the problem is that many companies still think in a social-medical model. They would rather fund a home for children who are mentally disabled than employ one person in the office, because that way it stays outside."

Mashilane experienced this attitude during his own job search. Once he showed up for a job interview after an employer expressed interest in hiring him during a phone conversation. When he arrived for the interview, the interviewer apologized for making him come all that way and gave him money for transportation home.

"Most people don't really accept disabled people," he says. "They feel pity. You can even get away with so many things because you're disabled, which isn't good."

Ms. Fick says that the challenge now is to enforce the new laws that protect the rights of the disabled.

People like Mashilane who have benefited from efforts to empower the disabled say even progressive companies often ghettoize the disabled into certain jobs. Although he is trained as a technician, the only job he could find was as a switchboard operator, a job disability groups say is commonly given to people with disabilities.

But, he says, progress is being made. "People are more willing to give you a chance now, and that's a difference."

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