The Silent Crisis

“…the situation is less impressive with regard to people with disability employed in government, measured against the 2% target we set ourselves. On both counts, the private sector is lagging far behind.” - Kgalema Motlanthe, State of the Nation address, 06 February 2009

“A human rights and development approach to disability focuses on the removal of barriers to equal participation and the elimination of discrimination based on disability.”- 2005 Disability Knowledge and Research (KAR) commissioned by the OSDP

According to the United Nations (2002), more than half a billion people worldwide are disabled as a result of mental, physical or sensory impairment. Approximately 80% of these disabled persons live in developing countries.
Disabled persons, more often than not, suffer from discrimination because of prejudice or ignorance, and may also lack access to essential services. The United Nations refers to it as the ‘silent crisis'.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated that in 1990, 5.2% of the world's population was experiencing moderate to severe disability, for South Africa the figure stood at approximately 5% in 1995.
Stats SA’s Community Survey 2007 shows that 1,916,218 South Africans were living with disabilities in 2007, 40% of them (almost 770,000 people) suffering from physical disabilities. In “Prevalence of disability in South Africa” (Statistics South Africa, 2005), data collected from CENSUS 2001 shows that in South Africa there are 2 255 982 people with various forms of disability.
“This number constituted 5% of the total population enumerated in this census. Of this number, 1 854 376 were African, 168 678 coloured, 41 235 Indian/Asian and 191 693 white. The number of females affected was 1 173 939, compared to 1 082 043 males.”
The report also states that the provincial prevalence levels show that the most affected province was Free State with a prevalence of 6.8% and the least affected Gauteng (3.8%). A comparison of the demographic and socio-economic characteristics of disabled and non-disabled persons shows that disabled persons were on average older. The prevalence increased by age from 2% in the age group 0-9 years to 27% in the age group 80 years and above.
The prevalence of sight disability was the highest (32%) followed by physical disability (30%), hearing (20%), emotional disability (16%), intellectual disability (12%) and communication disability (7%).
Legislation and structures
The new dispensation of South Africa, together with the adoption of the Constitution, brought hope of equal rights for all, including people with disabilities. There are many policies and legislation that provide opportunities for people with disabilities, unfortunately we only have space to mention two.
INDS - The Integrated National Disability Strategy (INDS) 1997, is a strategy paper that presents a blueprint for government national departments to integrate the needs of the disabled into their policies, procedures, programmes and practices.
It emphasises the attainment of a good and equitable quality of life for disabled persons in the country. Its main objectives reflect two main pillars.
One pillar is the systematic integration of disabled persons into all policies, plans, programmes and strategies aimed at enhancing the quality of life of all disabled persons at all levels, within all sectors and institutions of government.
The other is a coordinated, multi-sectoral, interdisciplinary and integrated approach in designing and implementing programmes and interventions that affect major national population concerns.
The INDS paper has brought an increased awareness of the need to monitor the situation of persons with disabilities.
OSDP - The Office on the Status of Disabled Persons (OSDP) is one of the transformation programmes in the Presidency with a mandate to ensure that all disability issues including the objectives of the INDS, regional, continental and other international initiatives relating to disability are incorporated into all policies and programmes in all spheres of Government; and all line departments within all spheres of Government. The mandate is primarily derived from the Constitution, the INDS and the political and transformation objectives of Government; ("creating a better life for all").
The OSDP has, over the years, established positive working relationships with national departments, provinces, and other role-players particularly organisations of disabled persons.


Those who had post-secondary education had the lowest prevalence of disability (3%) compared to those who had no schooling (10.5%), primary (5.2%) and secondary levels of education (3.9%). About 30% of disabled people had no education while only 13% of the non-disabled population fell in this category. The most affected population group in this regard were Africans.

Basic services

The findings of “Prevalence of disability in South Africa” with regard to access to basic services (housing, water and electricity for lighting) indicate that 53% of households headed by disabled persons lived in houses or brick structures – nearly the same as the percentage of households headed by non-disabled persons (56%). A significant proportion (37%) of households headed by disabled persons lived in traditional dwellings or huts and informal dwellings/ shacks.
About 48% of disabled heads of households owned the houses they lived in, while another 28% of households headed by disabled people lived in rent-free houses followed by nearly 14% who resided in rented houses.
About 78% of households headed by disabled persons had access to piped water compared to 85% of those headed by non-disabled persons. As far as electricity for lighting is concerned 62% of households headed by disabled persons used this service.
The above information is mainly based on 11 205 705 households which exclude households which were enumerated in collective quarters. A total of 894 299 households (455 040 headed by males and 439 259 headed by females) out of 11 205 705 were headed by disabled persons, representing about 8% of all the households.


According to “Prevalence of disability in South Africa” the percentage of disabled employed in 2001 was about 19%. Persons aged between 35 and 44 years reported the highest percentage of the employed.
Says the report: “The disadvantaged position of disabled persons could be due to diverse socio-economic and social cultural factors, particularly their low levels of education, discrimination in the labour market and negative attitudes of those they live amongst. These low levels of employment for the disabled population underscore their continued marginalisation and lack of independence within society.”


While there has been a conscious attempt to redress disabled people’s rights since 1994, the progress that has been made to date has been uneven. The report says: “Apparently, disabled persons are disadvantaged as far as access to educational and employment opportunities are concerned. The profiles by type of disability underscore the need to have preventive and rehabilitation programmes that target the most affected groups.”
The Thabo Mbeki Development Trust for Disabled People was formed in December 1999 to act as a proactive instrument in mobilising resources for the development and empowerment of persons with disabilities. The Trust aims to enhance the quality of life and promote the integration of disabled people into mainstream society. It supports the empowerment of disabled people through full participation with them and by creating various partnerships with key stakeholders.
Thulani Tshabalala, CEO of the Thabo Mbeki Development Trust says society now recognizes people with disabilities. “This is derived from the constitution and has put disability on the map so to speak.”
However, when he speaks of the different legislation regarding to disability, he says there are gaps. “There are many policies and legislation on disability. However these are working in silos and therefore there are gaps that need to be overcome to get these to work in parallel. For example, people with disabilities are part of the Employment Equity Act, but education models have lagged and therefore they are not always able to take advantage of these opportunities. It is the same with health. People with disabilities qualify for free healthcare, but how do they take advantage of this if these is no accessible transport to get them there?”
“Therefore the dilemma we are faced with is implementation of policies and ensuring the policies complement each other to work together.”
The vast majority of Africans with disabilities are excluded from schools, opportunities to work and participation in poverty reduction programs, virtually guaranteeing that they will live out their lives as the poorest of the poor. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Labour and Social Affairs Commission at its 22nd Ordinary session held in Windhoek, Namibia in April 1999 recommended that the period 1999 to 2009 be proclaimed as the African Decade of Disabled Persons.
Nafisa Baboo, children and youth officer for the Special African Decade on Disability office in Cape Town says inclusion has been promoted since the constitution. “Stories such as Soul City, parliamentarians with disabilities, and the OSDP located within the presidency shows there is progress.”
However she says this is a process and will not happen overnight. “It is a goal and we are moving towards it.”
One of the biggest problems for her is the lack of knowledge of rights. “People with disabilities are far too often unaware of the policies and legislation that are there for them, supporting them and, therefore, are unable to take advantage of these.
“On the other side of the coin, the policies and legislation are not enforced and there are no punitive measures in place to ensure, for example, access to buildings. It is up to us to challenge this and push the government.”
The non-profit organisation, National Council for Persons with Physical Disabilities in South Africa (NCPPDSA), serves as a pro-active forum for the advancement of physically disabled people, so as to enable them to attain their maximum levels of independence and integration into the community, and to prevent the occurrence of physical disablement. Johan Viljoen, national director, aggress that the country has the best legislation in the world regarding people with disabilities. However, he is not convinced that the implementation is of the same level.
“For example, part of the legislation impacting on people with disabilities is the Employment Equity Act. However a study done towards the end of last year shows that government departments have failed terribly in implementing the required figure.”
“So policies are nice, but if the very people who put them in place cannot adhere to them, how can they expect others to? It is no wonder then that the private sector has fared as dismally with regard to employing people with disabilities. In fact many businesses consider it easier to pay the penalty than to make their workplace acceptable.”
A major step forward he says is the signing and ratification of the UN Convention by South Africa. “And here I applaud the government as they were one of the first to sign it. Now that it is in place, people with disabilities can demand certain things, while government has to report on its progress.”
Of course the sector also has a role to play. “I believe it is also our responsibility to sensitise society all the time as this leads to awareness.”

UN Convention on Rights of People with Disabilities

International Convention on Rights of People with Disabilities promotes and protects the fundamental rights and freedom of people with disabilities to enjoy equal footing in the society. It aims at promoting respect for the inherent dignity of people with disabilities. The convention includes people with different types of disabilities, for example people with long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory disabilities that can hinder their participation in society on an equal basis with others. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol were adopted on 13 December 2006 by the United Nations General Assembly at New York. It was opened for signature on 30 March 2007 making it the first human rights convention to be open for signature by regional integration organizations. On 30th March, 81 Member States and the European Community signed the Convention, which is the highest number of signatures of any human rights convention on its opening day. 44 Member States signed the Optional Protocol, and 1 Member State ratified the Convention.

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