Blind faith — providing hope and work for the visually impaired
The unemployment rate for the blind and visually impaired is a staggering 97% in South Africa. The Cape Town Society for the Blind helps people with work opportunities and to get back on their feet.
Post-pandemic, businesses are back to operating at full capacity. For the Cape Town Society for the Blind (CTSB), an organisation that serves the blind and visually impaired, the past two years have been the most difficult in its 93-year history. Having survived lockdown, the site’s restaurant “experience” is back on track and artisans are returning to their work stations.
The radio blares in the workshop. Artisans sit poised, damp cane curled around their feet as they exchange playful banter above the music. Strand by bamboo strand, baskets are woven at desks neatly lined up facing large industrial windows.
Colin Wilemse (52) has worked as a cane weaver for the past five years. “We do piecemeal work so we get paid according to what we do. There are times in the year when work is scarce, but when there is work you can make a living,” he says.
His guide dog, Volt, sits in a basket beside him and watches him work. They’ve been together for the past nine years, since Volt was a pup.
“He’s getting old now. He has arthritis but he’s a good dog,” says Wilemse with a smile.
The Cape Town Society for the Blind (CTSB), situated in Salt River, was established in 1929. It has five main departments employing blind and visually impaired people, namely cane weaving, material weaving, packaging, training and re-caning.
Their doors are open to the public, who can browse handmade products, and custom-made items can be ordered, such as the “human nests” designed by award-winning South African artist Porky Hefer, which sell in the region of $20,000 to $95,000 a piece.
With 85 full-time employees and 39 entrepreneurs, the organisation has also found creative ways to engage the public, with Dining in the Dark making a comeback after two years of the pandemic.
Wilemse lost his right eye at the age of six. “It was an accident. Me and my friend [were] playing with wire and by accident he put a wire into my eye. In the right eye,” he says.
At the age of 18 he lost the use of his left eye. “I was assaulted. Some of us were sitting and relaxing… One of my friends was upset because of a joke that I made and he hit me with a bottle over the head and that left me totally blind,” says Wilemse.
Census data from 2011 estimates that SA’s disabled population is 7.5%, and 1.7% of South Africans experience severe visual difficulty. Unemployment figures for the blind and visually impaired “are above 90%, with the last accurately measured figure a staggering 97%”, according to Lebohang Tekela, communications officer at Blind SA.
Tekela says the blind and partially sighted community comprise lawyers, computer programmers, switchboard operators and teachers who could plug the hole in skilled worker shortages.
“Blind and partially sighted people are able to do almost everything in the job market — they just require reasonable accommodation. [But] many employers are not willing to take a chance in employing them,” says Tekela.
Sergil January (36) is an awareness officer at CTSB who educates the public on the needs of blind and visually impaired people in the workplace and advocates for their capabilities.
“The public out there think blind people can only do the easiest job you can find and that’s not true. We can do anything,” he says. January has been totally blind since the age of 19. As a teenager, he was involved with a gang on the Cape Flats. He recalls the traumatic day his life changed.
“It was an ordinary day. I was at the spot I hung out at every day where drugs were sold and used. A man pulled up. We had actually had an altercation the night before and he said to me, ‘Jy’s lank sterk gevriet’. He pulled out his pistol and started shooting. That’s how I became blind,” he says.
“After two weeks in hospital I saw a social worker at Groote Schuur and she told me the bullet [had] damaged [my] optic nerve and [I wouldn’t] be able to see again. I was very angry… I didn’t have any proper work experience, I didn’t have proper education, I dropped out in Grade 9,” he says.
But he insists that that day saved his life. Had he not been shot he would have ended up “behind bars or buried”.
“I was part of a gang since I was 14. And I was very much involved, to the point where I could not get out of it. Becoming blind was my escape. I confronted the leader and said to him that I can’t defend myself and with that I can’t defend this camp and therefore I step back. Since then I [have been] out of that gang. I got a pass, which I was very grateful for,” he says.
January completed a computer course at CTSB and finished his matric. He also took up blind cricket and ended up playing for the national team. “I thought I would be dependent on a disability grant but I decided to pull my socks up. There are places out there that help blind and visually impaired people get back on their feet,” he says.
Marisa Teles is a social worker at CTSB. She assists with social interventions that range from helping clients to get government grants to trauma counselling and school placement. Some of her clients are minors who attend mainstream schools, even though they are not always equipped to accommodate them.
“With mainstream school, it’s about accessibility. If they were accessible to people with visual impairment or other disabilities, I think our clients would go far… But a lot of the time they’re pushed aside or sent to special-needs schools. We have clients who go through mainstream schools and they become visually impaired close to matric and they say, well we can’t accommodate you,” says Teles.
South Africa has 22 schools for the blind, many of which are under-resourced, so Teles fights for her clients to remain in mainstream schools.
“Most schools don’t allow smartphones in class but we say [pupils who are visually impaired] need it. We say use your phone, record the lesson, use your phone as a magnifier,” says Teles. “We have students in Grade 11 who are going to go to matric and they have low vision and we beg the schools, don’t move them anywhere else, let them stay and we can guide them.”
Low vision is the loss of vision that cannot be corrected with spectacles, contact lenses or surgery. The on-site optometrist works with occupational therapist Shaakirah Karjieker, and together they find affordable solutions for people with low vision.
From the humble magnifying glass to a video magnifier, Karjieker says each client’s needs are different. Their favourite device at the moment is Pad Perch by local designer Jenny Webster, which provides a hands-free structure for users while using their devices as a magnifier.
According to the World Health Organization, 2.2 billion people globally have vision impairment caused by cataracts, age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma, and half of these can be prevented. For others with low vision that cannot be improved medically, digital devices and learning Braille are a must.
“People don’t understand the importance of Braille. Just because of technology that’s been taking over. You can get books in Braille. If you are in a meeting you can get notes in Braille and follow the agenda. It’s still very useful,” says Avril Davids (60).
When DM168 went to visit, Davids was teaching Nadeer Marthinius (50), who was typing out different letters of the Braille alphabet to practise. Davids has taught Braille for the past 15 years, starting off at the League of Friends of the Blind in Grassy Park before moving to CTSB. She says a fast learner putting in eight hours a day can smash the Braille syllabus in three months, whereas an average learner can take up to six months to learn the tactile writing system.
She learnt Braille in her mid-20s after she went for a routine eye test and the optometrist told her that her vision would deteriorate because of retinitis pigmentosa.
“I thought no, that optometrist is talking nonsense, [as] I [could] then still see,” she says with a laugh. “Only at a later stage [did] I [learn] what it was, that you don’t have night vision, no peripheral vision, [you] only have field vision and there’s a certain percentage that you can’t see,” she says.
“My vision deteriorated [over] time and then I had to admit to myself that I needed help. But I think I was born with this condition because as a child I would run into doors and fall over pavements. I just thought that was normal, not knowing that I have an eye problem,” she says.
Benjamin Pedro (26) has been blind for most of his life and advocates strongly for the use of cheap digital technology to ease daily interactions. He trains students to use their smartphones over three months.
“When I can see that they are able to use their phones, it’s very rewarding. They are independent and don’t have to rely on someone sighted to assist them,” he says.
Adrian Davids is a facilitator with eight students completing the International Computer Driving Licence class (ICDL). At the end of the course they walk away with an internationally recognised ICDL certificate.
“The important thing for our students is to get a job, to generate some income and, with today’s technology, it’s important that my students have the skills to transact, to do business, to do digital marketing. So it’s a skill that they’ll always have with them,” says Davids.
“You can walk into any work as a blind person,” says Andre Timotheus (49), who is an artisan. “At the time I became blind, I thought [there was] nothing in life for me [and that I could] go nowhere, but the day I stood up and pulled myself together and looked at the road ahead, everything [became easy for me].”
Janneke Conradie from Loxtonia Cider, a cider company based in Ceres, says her company uses some of the picnic baskets made at CTSB in their tasting rooms on the farm. “We’ve always received very good work from them and we’ve ordered through them for the past two years. It’s always good to support them,” she says.
Another high-profile client, Joshua Crowe from the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa, says the workmanship of their hand-woven baskets used in the hotel rooms, picnic and pool areas is of the highest quality.
“We strive to work with as many local companies as possible and assist in the skills development of all South Africans,” says Crowe.
“To come to work every day is such a privilege, because there are other people who are fine, there’s nothing wrong with them, and they sit [at home].
“But for us, who are blind, we put in the effort to come to work,” says Wilemse, Volt lying at his side.
“Even if you are unhappy at home, you come to work and that’s gone because we are one big family here,” he says. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.