Youth & disability: what is the future? Erica du Toit

South Africa has just come through national and provincial elections and our newly elected President is about to be sworn into office.  It is a time of hope; hope that our new Government will, this time, govern with integrity, for the sake of the people; hope that our country will become economically strong; hope that the human rights of all South Africans will be recognised and respected.

It is in this new era, and with Youth Day on 16 June just around the corner that we must especially consider the youth of South Africa.  Many children of school-going age cannot find placement in a school due to admission criteria, procedure or overcrowding, school leavers struggle to gain entrance to a tertiary institution of their choice and graduates struggle to find employment.

Add disability into the mix and struggles are heightened.

I received a letter from Zainab Slarmie, a young woman with a disability and was touched by her message which is the story of many youths with disabilities in South Africa.  Zainab was involved in a car accident in 2010 in which her spinal cord was ruptured and she spent the next 2 weeks in a coma.  She missed most of her 1st year of high school due to hospitalization and had to complete the entire year in a few months.  She was bullied and harassed at school by other students who didn’t understand her situation, but she completed school and went on to study Fashion Design and teaching for Foundation Phase learners and motivational speaking.

Despite her education, co-workers victimized and bullied her.  She writes : “I was threatened by a co-worker who cut off a piece of my hair.  She told the boss to fire me because I did not want to leave the job that I came and work ed hard at every day.”    Since then, Zainab has not been able to secure employment in her chosen field.  She writes that she receives a standard response to her applications… “Dear Zainab.  Thank you for your mail and your interest in the position.  I regret to inform you that the nature of the work would not be suitable for a person with your physical disability related limitations.”  Interestingly, these include companies who have especially invited persons with disabilities to apply.

As someone who deals daily with human rights issues in relation to disability, I found this highly offensive!  To begin with, every human being has the right to work.  Secondly, I acknowledge that out of 5 applications for a single position, there will be 4 candidates who are disappointed at not being successful.  BUT… those 4 candidates are not usually denied employment based on what the employer perceives them being unable to accomplish!  Any employer (or individual for that matter) who assumes someone’s capabilities based on how they look, has ignored the education of the person in question and become blind (if you’ll pardon the expression…) to any other characteristic and is focused solely on the person’s impairment!

The Bill of Rights, enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution is clear –

  • The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.
    • No person may unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds in terms of subsection (3)

In other words, such discrimination is against the law and is therefore ILLEGAL.

Zainab continues, “The sad thing is that we can do whatever we want to but we are not given the opportunity to do what we love or do what we can do. The fact that everyone worries about being disabled more than disabled people do. I won’t let people “dis” my “ability” to do something I want to do. I am proud of who I am; other people should be proud too.  Think about it like this…What would you do if you were in our position and how would you feel?”

It is extremely difficult to place ourselves in someone else’s situation, but I ask that you try.  Try to understand how someone must feel when they are bullied because of the way they look, see, hear or walk.  Think about what it would be like if you applied for position with the necessary qualifications & skills, knowing you will be an excellent employee that will benefit the company, but are refused employment anyway.

Consider this: is South Africa really free for our youth? Or will we continue in a “myself at all costs” manner, to the exclusion of our fellow humans?  Persons with impairments want opportunities, not handouts or special treatment.  Will you be the reasons someone is disabled or will you practice inclusion in all spheres of your daily life?

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