Disability and Human Rights.

Dr Essop Pahad, South Africa’s Minister in the Office of the Presidency, continues addressing readers of Rolling Inspiration in this exclusive column. In this issue he deals with the definition of disability as recently agreed to by Cabinet.

The United Nations estimates that 600 million or 10% of the world’s population has some form of disability. Over two thirds live in the developing world and only 2% of disabled children in the developing world receive any education or rehabilitation.

There is also a whole body of research that points to the link between disability and poverty, disability and unequal access to the labour market, disability and unequal access to the valued goods and services in society and disability and marginalisation and exclusion.

Recently our Cabinet approved the following definition of disability:

“The loss or elimination of opportunities to take part in the life of the community, equitably with others that is encountered by persons having physical, sensory, psychological, developmental, learning, neurological or other impairments, which may be permanent, temporary or episodic in nature, thereby causing activity limitations and participation restriction with the mainstream society. These barriers may be due to economic, physical, social, attitudinal and/or cultural factors.”

We must all collectively work hard to popularise this definition. and undertake educationals around this definition. We must ask what the utility of having such a definition is. For us the answer lies with:

  • Protecting the human rights of all including those who are disabled;
  • Being pro-active in dealing with biases and stereotyping that negatively affect the life chances of those who are disabled;
  • Working in co-operation with organisations in civil society and with the business community to begin the complex and arduous task of debunking myths, biases and stereotyping about people with disabilities;
  • Mapping out the realities of reasonable accommodation short of undue economic hardship, that is requires ensuring equality of opportunity for people with disabilities.

The broader discussion about the rights of people with disabilities is a reflection on the kind of South Africa we are all committed to building. It is about transformation of attitudes and institutions, protecting and advancing rights to eradicate discrimination. It is about creating a non-racist non-sexist non-discriminatory, democratic South Africa that truly belongs to all who live in it.

A commitment to protecting and advancing the human rights of rights of people with disabilities therefore, is about dignity, self worth, autonomy, self-determination and ensuring that the disabled person is continually at the centre of decisions affecting him or her. It is about making the invisible and the hidden visible and celebrated.

But the equal and effective enjoyment of human rights by people with disabilities has to include a serious discussion about families and the structural supports required by those responsible for the caring of family members who are disabled. It has to also include a discussion about the role of the state, the role of communities and community based organisations and the role of the private sector.

In the contemporary South African context we also need to link our understanding of the fundamental human rights of people with disabilities to those values which are uniquely and quintessentially South African. Our President refers to these values as Ubuntu and Letsema. The formers speaks to the importance of humanity and the latter, is a Tswana word for working together.

First “Ubuntu” - the word, as you all know comes from the Zulu and Xhosa languages. A rough translation in English could be “humanity towards others.” Ubuntu also means “I am what I am because of who we all are”. Ubuntu is “The belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.”

If we take the second meaning of “Ubuntu” we realise that if one in our community or our society is poor we are all poor. If one is in need we are all in need. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that the well being and human rights of people with disabilities are protected and advanced.

So by combining the many complementary meanings of “Ubuntu” and “Letsema”, we are in fact saying that if we allow the human rights of people with disabilities to be eroded, we allow the rights of all to be eroded. In this sense all our rights are only as strong as the rights of the most socio-economically vulnerable members of our society.

We are also working at the international level to develop a United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. In this way we feel we can make a very important contribution to the empowerment of people with disabilities both nationally and internationally.

Be in touch – use the e-mail address above. It will be good to hear from you.

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