“I am in government now, not as a person with a disability, but there will be pressure to deliver on accessibility because I am a person with a disability.”
Deputy Minister of Public Works, Ms Hendrietta Ipeleng Bogopane-Zulu, is visually impaired and emphatic when she states that access is a constitutional right for all disabled people.
“Access includes access to information. So if a visually impaired person cannot access information because of its format then that is discrimination.”
For her, ensuring access starts within her own department. “As the Department of Public Works (DPW) we have a responsibility in terms of access as we are accountable for the accommodation of government departments.”
While the DPW is working hard to make buildings accessible, it is a slow process, hampered by a lack of enforcement. Another problem is that the DPW is not the single custodian of state assets. “It is difficult to hold one person accountable. Therefore, we can only take responsibility for our buildings, not for provincial and municipal buildings. The DPW has spent R20 million to ensure its buildings are accessible at a national level and we will continue to make the buildings we are responsible for accessible.”
One of the snags is prioritising which buildings to make accessible first. The DPW is drawing up a draft on how to prioritise buildings for access.
“We will get comments on this and then send this out to the provinces and stakeholders including the construction industry. Architects and builders are the worst culprits when it comes to access as they are more focused on making the buildings fancy.”
Over the next 18 months the DPW will be making 184 buildings accessible. These have been prioritised so that the most critical will be done first.
The regulation of the construction industry is done though councils such as the Construction Built Environment Council and the Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB). “While, with CIDB tenders, access is a standard requirement we are also working on making the grading system account for this. This will help give the regulation teeth – something it lacks at the moment,” explains Deputy Minister Bogopane-Zulu.
The DPW is part of an initiative to ensure that 2% of all people employed by government are people with disabilities. The deadline is December.
“Phase one did not go well and we are now looking at how we can do better and correct our previous performance. We are internally re-prioritising to achieve the 2%.”
There is also a need to develop disabled contractors. “We have the Contractors’ Incubator Programme in place and it must benefit disabled people. We need to improve the disabled young people who are taking up careers in the construction industry by assisting them with guidelines in terms of their careers.”
“We are pushing the department out of the “You cannot” mode into the “Why not?” mode. We want to be the leader with all the other departments following suit. Once we are able to get it right at DPW then the word access will mean more than just a ramp or a talking computer.”
“People with disabilities will be paying tax – not using tax. That is my dream: reducing grants so only the severely disabled need them. There is no justification for a person who is visually impaired to receive a grant. I say: go out there!”
“Take the Extended Public Works Programme (EPWP). We are employing people with hearing impairments on our cleaning projects. Hence this forms part of our vision to create 500 000 jobs. We want to give disabled people this space and opportunity and meet our targets. I do not believe in stereotyping blind people into switchboard operators.”
She explains that it is important for government to meet the targets set in 2000. “It will start to change people’s mindsets about what work people with disabilities can and cannot do. Already there has been change. In 1994 we gained dignity and we are now treated as human beings. We are no longer objects in a house with people taking care of us. We have come out of institutions and have made a contribution to building South Africa.”
The Deputy Minister sees the reduction in institutions as a plus to people with disabilities.
“We are now seen as people who can have families and houses. As a black disabled person I asked for the reduction of institutions because we want to live our lives. For example, government changed the housing policy so people with disabilities can now own a house. In fact we can own anything now.”
Access to education is very important. “We are sitting with a high number of disabled people with no education. We need inclusive schools and schools cannot disallow a child with a disability access, but again, implementation and enforcement is the problem. If the principal of the school respects the policy then it works; otherwise it does not. There is a community project through the Extended Public Works Programme to make schools accessible, but on provincial level.
Some schools have worked within this programme and are taking disabled children into their schools.”
“I see myself as a role model in government. In 1994 there was one disabled person in parliament. In 1999 this number increased to 11 and in 2004 to 20. Today there are 22 persons with disabilities in Parliament with some of these in cabinet. This is indicative of the ANC’s internalising of disability.”
“My mother would not let me cook or iron as she was afraid I would burn myself. To this day, if she visits, she insists on cooking and ironing. She also chooses my clothes as she believes that I cannot. She raised me as a person with a visual impairment and that is how she sees me. I realise this. My mother imagined me a beggar while I have raised two disabled children who are both independent and have their own space. They have been brought up differently to how I was brought up.”
“My five year-old, for example, is very clear on what she wants to be. She knows she is visually impaired, but this is not a reason why she cannot be what she wants to be. The difference is that, if a beggar is the only role model you have for a person who is visually impaired, what else do you aspire to?”
It was to break this thinking that the deputy minister began the support group called Disabled Children’s Action Group. “To encourage parents to raise strong children I launched this group to create strong parents. They then empower their children and make them stand up. It is all about mentoring and role models.”
In 2001 she launched a youth group for older children. “They were now taking the lead and this became their organisation.”
“It is a major problem if the issues of women with disabilities are forgotten. In 2000, in Beijing, this happened when an international women’s event took place in an inaccessible venue. This is one of the realities of disability.” My five year-old, is very clear on what she wants to be. She knows she is visually impaired, but this is not a reason why she cannot be what she wants to be. The deputy-minister has experienced these realities herself. “When I got married it was not a question of MP gets married in the media, but blind MP ties the knot. It was about my blindness and reproduction rights. The media asked questions such as who will look after our children, assuming that I would not be able to. It is amazing how women with disabilities have to motivate their right to have a child to other women, never mind men. With my first pregnancy the sister asked me if I had been raped. That was accepted before it was accepted that I could be in a happy relationship and want a child.”
“Unfortunately this is still happening today. As a result we launched the South African National AIDS Council member high impact programme in August. We have been training nurses.”
Through the programme three clinics have been renovated, creating state-of-the-art clinics that are accessible. “Now, if you are in a wheelchair, you can go and have a check up. Previously the bed was too high and, because there was only one sister, you had no assistance to be transferred onto the bed. Now the bed can be lowered. This is a major breakthrough as physically disabled women were previously not screened for cancer.”
“A woman who is hearing impaired does not know about labour pains. By providing sign language interpreters and training the nurses, community health workers, administrative workers and attendees at the clinics about disability these things can be overcome. It is a two year process that we have just launched.”
“We are also looking at libraries and making them fully accessible so, for example, there is a scanner for people who are visually impaired to read for them. We are also training the library staff in terms of disability.”
The deputy minister believes all of these are positives, and positives are part of the journey to an inclusive South Africa.
“All of these issues are about accessibility. It is not just about a ramp. Our response to people with a disability must be as a whole.”
“We have the best legislation in the world, but the chapter of legislation is over. Now is the time to implement. We are breathing life into this now and over the next five years. We have the resources. With me in cabinet and others at that level and in parliament we are able to remind the administration that people with disabilities must not be forgotten. Implementation is non-negotiable.
“I believe we are on course to creating a better life for all people with disabilities. If this happens then my being here will have been successful.”