South Africa

Know Your Constitution: People with disabilities – hidden, but not unheard

By Muhammad Zakaria Suleman & Jean Elphick 4 December 2013

The “Know Your Constitution” Campaign* is a campaign that advocates for the right to constitutional literacy, including the right to access physical copies of our Constitution. The Campaign culminates on 10 December – the 17th anniversary of the official adoption of the Constitution. This week’s focus is on rights of people with disabilities - a group of South Africans that face human rights violations as a matter, of course, on a daily basis. Beyond blind beggars at traffic lights, and a handful of exceptional public figures with disabilities, the relative invisibility of disabled people in our society belies the fact that up to 15% of our population may have a disabling impairment of some kind. The work of SECTION27 and Afrika Tikkun proves that constitutional literacy is a tool for amplifying the quiet voices of the most marginalised, and provides an example of what those voices can achieve, given access to and the understanding of our Constitution. By MUHAMMAD ZAKARIA SULEMAN and JEAN ELPHICK.

We feel that our children with disabilities should not be treated as if they do not exist! They also have rights to education like all other children,” states a letter presented to a Ward councillor in Orange Farm last year.

The letter was prepared by a group of caregivers of disabled children from Orange Farm township, south of Johannesburg. The caregivers meet weekly as members of the Sidinga Uthando Self-help Group. The Group was founded last year after a handful of mothers completed a 12-session participatory workshop series on human and disability rights, our Constitution and the processes to follow in order to claim one’s rights. The workshops were offered for a morning a week by the Afrika Tikkun Empowerment Programme: Children with Disabilities and Their Families in the middle of last year.

Despite the difficult circumstances in which these caregivers are raising their children, in just over a year they have achieved great success in better accessing the basic human rights for disabled children. An example of this is the group’s achievements in the area of access to education following their introduction to section 29 of the Constitution. Section 29 requires that all children shall have immediate access to a basic education. Despite the existence of this right, over 800 children in the Orange Farm area, with various disabilities, are not going to school each morning. The type of schools that can cater for their needs are far away, expensive to get to, and are – without exception – full.

In response to this situation, and in little more than a year, the group systematically recruited and referred disabled children to the Gauteng Department of Education, building up a database to illustrate the scale of the problem. They penned letters and submissions, spoke publicly at community meetings, and voiced their opinions and shared their experiences. In early 2013 a Task Team for Orange Farm Children with Special Education Needs was established by the Department and over the course of a few months a submission requesting a new school in the area was drafted. The successful outcome of the submission was shared at a public meeting held at Afrika Tikkun’s site in August: Education MEC, Barbara Creecy, had approved the building of a school to accommodate 600 children! The building of this school is scheduled to begin in 2016.

The Constitution, through section 7(2), requires the state to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights. The Constitution provides a compromised set of rights to all South Africans by consistently referring to the holders of these rights as “everyone”. In regard to people living with disabilities, instruments such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Promotion of Equality, which South Africa has ratified, and the Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act heighten and specify the government’s obligations. In particular, the government is required to take measures, such as reasonably accommodating persons with disabilities in a manner which their rights to basic education, equality and dignity are fulfilled, are ways of realising such rights for people with disabilities.

Section 29 of the Constitution has promoted and entrenched the right of all our children to education for nearly 20 years. Yet it was only after the Sidinga Uthando caregivers learned that this right applies to their children too, and what that means for the obligation owed to them specifically, that they started mobilising.

Similar mobilisation has occurred in the furthest throws of KwaZulu Natal, showing that the ability of marginalised people to fight against structural discrimination and effective exclusion of disabled people to public services is not unique to urban townships. Similar issues were voiced by Siphila Isizwa, a Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO) in the uMhlabuyalingana, Manguzi district.

In September, SECTION27, accompanied by Students for Law and Social Justice and former Justice Zakeria Yacoob of the Constitutional Court, worked with the DPO’s members by facilitating a 4-day interactive constitutional literacy workshop. Various constitutional rights, such as the rights to social assistance; basic education; and access to healthcare services, were explained in a way that participants could relate to.

Justice Yacoob, who has lived with a disability since a young age, packaged the constitution in a manner which the DPO could identify with, saying that he was “hoping that the people themselves get stronger and they’re able to organise themselves, able to understand more clearly what they need and they’re able to demand it. Because I believe that absent a strong civil society, government will never deliver properly, whoever that government will be.”

Armed with their newfound understanding of their rights, and the reasonable accommodation that even deep-rural state institutions should be equipped to provide in order to make basic and adequate services for all, Siphila Isizwa framed a mass meeting of over 250 persons with disabilities around the Constitution. The attendees weathered the long, expensive, sandy journey in order to come together and discuss a way forward. The meeting was convened by the participants of the constitutional literacy workshops. As a result of becoming more familiar with the rights in the Constitution and avenues for relief, the outcome of the meeting was an action plan for promoting the section 29 right to education. Siphila Isizwa members may not have had access to an education themselves, but they are determined that future generations of disabled children in their area will be afforded the same opportunities as their non-disabled siblings.

Both the Orange Farm and Manguzi examples illustrate that understanding the Constitution does not have to be contingent on literacy, eyesight, cognition, education or the financial ability to pay for a Constitution. They also show how much can be achieved by disabled people and caregivers of disabled children if the Constitution is made available and accessible to them. Disability is a human rights issue. Although our Constitution and much of our legislation is heralded as a progressive and exemplary model for disability rights, there remains a vast gap between the letter of the law, people living with disabilities’ understanding of the law and, ultimately, its implementation by state agencies. Although the implementation gap affects all disabled persons, its effects are disproportionately burdensome for those who are subject to overlapping layers of disadvantage or discrimination, including race, gender and poverty.

The right to constitutional literacy, which requires the printing of Braille, large print and child-friendly versions of the constitution booklets, however, must extend far beyond this: human rights and constitutional literacy should be viewed as essential knowledge that all South Africans should have at their disposal. This knowledge should not be contingent solely on the efforts of organisations like Afrika Tikkun and SECTION27 as it forms part of the mandate of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development and the Department of Basic Education, and requires support from institutions such as the Human Rights Commission.

Our Constitution is a living document with everyday relevance in the lives of all South Africans. This includes the hidden people with disabilities in our society that many of us never see. People on the fringes of our society, where disability is often charged with cultural stigma and shame can only fight for their rights if they have some awareness of what they are, and, are empowered with the knowledge and skills needed to advocate for them. Both the Siphila iSizwa and Sidinga Uthando have reframed their movements within the paradigm of the Constitution. They have therefore gained important leverage and power through constitutional literacy.

Without accessible information about human rights, those who need them the most will continue to live in a South Africa where rights violations continue to be an accepted, daily feature of life. DM

*The Know Your Constitution campaign is a coalition of civil society organisations united by our common belief in the importance of access to constitutions and constitutional literacy. It includes the Constitutional Literacy and Service Initiative, The Socio-Economic Rights Institute, SECTION27, Constitution Hill Education Project, Equal Education, Black Sash, Lawyers Against Abuse, Sonke Gender Justice Network, The Centre for Applied Legal Studies and Afrika Tikkun. We welcome new members. Follow these organisations on Facebook and Twitter and look out for our articles on the pages of the Daily Maverick in weeks to come.

Photo: (REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian)


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