Time to demand equal rights for blind people

| Marcus Low

Being blind or visually impaired means many things in life are simply much more difficult than what they are for other people. Some of these things we can do something about, others we can’t. There are two fundamentally different ways for society and governments to respond to this unpleasant reality. The one option is pity and non-integration - the other is to forget about pity and to take practical steps to make things as equal as possible so that blind people can integrate into society.

A new SECTION27 report in to schools for the blind in South Africa shows that our government is failing dismally to take steps to help blind learners integrate into society. Out of the 22 schools for the blind in the country 17 have no access to any textbooks in the CAPS curriculum at all. The report states: “Though the majority of schools have access to some workbooks for mathematics and language subjects, there are no workbooks available in Braille for the vast majority of compulsory subjects. Those workbooks which are made available are often incomplete sets including only some volumes and arrive randomly and sporadically, often long after they are needed.”

While the report paints a picture of shockingly underfunded and understaffed schools, many blind children simply never make it to these schools. There is no reliable evidence on this, but the Department of Basic education estimates that nearly 600,000 children with disabilities may not have access to schools. Even if the real number is only a fraction of this estimate it’s a serious problem. What becomes of these children?

The trend in most developed countries is toward inclusive education – which means accommodating blind learners in ordinary mainstream schools as far as possible. Even though South Africa has made some policy nods toward inclusive education, most notably in an excellent policy white paper from 2001, this has not been followed through with implementation. The reality is that mainstreaming is only a realistic option for middle-class parents who happen to live near a well-resourced school, and who are willing to demand that the school accommodate their child.

On paper at least South Africa has taken some significant steps since the end of apartheid. Apart from the 2001 white paper, South Africa both signed and ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2007. The CRPD should in theory bind countries to a legal, policy and service delivery framework of enabling people with disabilities rather than providing charity (the so-called social model of disability). While we haven’t signed the Marrakesh (books for the blind) treaty, the recent Copyright Amendment Bill suggests that South Africa intends to ratify and domesticate the treaty – undeniably a good thing.

But, as the schools for the blind report shows, there is a large gap between the ideals of the CRPD and the situation on the ground. In part, this is of course due to the general dysfunction in the public service. Considered alongside government’s regular failure to get medicines from depots to clinics, or textbooks from warehouses to schools, the schools for the blind report is not all that surprising. In fact, the journey from the excellent 2001 white paper to the dire implementation of it described in the SECTION27 report is emblematic of what may well be the defining trend in our public service over the last decade.

Yet, the problems with schools for the blind and other disability related problems are different to other service delivery failures in at least two ways.

First, there has been remarkably little pressure on government to get their act together on disability rights. Until now there has hardly been public debate about disability rights in South Africa. Of course disability gets a line or two in the State of the Nation Address and government officials will say some nice things because November is disability rights awareness month, but usually that is as far as it goes. We’ll give some computers to a school for the blind, send out a press release, and then forget about them until next year.

Part of the problem is that disability rights groups in South Africa haven’t been aggressive enough in demanding their rights. We simply haven’t managed to turn government’s neglect of people with disabilities into a human rights or a Constitutional issue – as Basic Education For All (BEFA), for example, has done with access to textbooks in ‘ordinary’ schools in Limpopo.

Second, the failure to demand the rights of people with disabilities may have to do with the outdated views many in our society still hold of what it means for someone to live with a disability. My impression is that we haven’t yet moved on from the charity model to the social model of disability. This may even be true for some local groups representing people with disabilities.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, disability rights groups have actively protested against patronising fund-raising events such as telethons that perpetuate the stereotype of people with disabilities being helpless and in need of charity. These groups understand that while the pity card can be very useful when fundraising, it comes at a significant cost in terms of how society perceives people with disabilities. By contrast, it is still quite common in South Africa to see blind people sitting at shopping malls collecting money for their organisations. While this is obviously well-intentioned, it certainly doesn’t do anything to challenge harmful stereotypes of blind people as helpless or unemployable.

Neither civil society or government seems to have snapped out of the charity mindset. This is not all that surprising. We simply haven’t seen the ambitious government plans or progressive legislation one would need to start breaking pervasive stereotypes about disability. Part of those plans would have to be public communications campaigns, but more important would be the actual practice of enabling blind people – for example through providing proper education. The neglect described in the schools for the blind report strongly suggests that this kind of enabling is not a priority for government.

Hopefully with the publication of the schools for the blind report we will finally reach a turning point. Reports only get us so far though. Ultimately, it will be up to blind people and organisations representing blind people to mobilise for our rights.

Low, who is partially sighted, is the director of policy for the Treatment Action Campaign and the editor of TAC’s magazine, Equal Treatment. Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.

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TOPICS:  Government Human Rights

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