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Discrimination against people with disabilities: The window is dressed but the mannequins remain immobile


Ari Seirlis broke his neck at the age of 23 and this rendered him quadriplegic. Among many other things, Seirlis was the CEO of the QuadPara Association of South Africa for 20 years, leading their Strategic Plan 'developing the full potential of quadriplegics and paraplegics'. He is a member of the Presidential Working Group on Disability.

If you are a wheelchair user, each city or town becomes a minefield of its own, without an app or map to forewarn you of where you can or cannot go. The inconveniences are not only embarrassing, time-consuming and inconsiderate, but downright discriminating.

I was injured in a diving accident 37 years ago, transforming me from an able-bodied active person in an accepting society into a wheelchair user with quadriplegia, in an inaccessible environment and a ruthless and ignorant society.

I knew at the time of discharge from hospital that I would have to cope with being a wheelchair user. The reality didn’t seem too harsh if you accept the fact that the greatest challenge would be not being able to walk again and any other medical and health complications that come with spinal cord injury.

Well, that was the message communicated to me as a farewell from the rehabilitation staff. At the time that’s all they knew for their farewell message and forewarning. Life with spinal cord injury has its challenges and inconveniences, which can be dealt with by being able to access the correct equipment, assistive devices, mobility aids and prevention strategies for any collateral health issues.

However, life in South Africa as a person with a disability has challenges that are not so easily resolved. Politically, we have moved in leaps and bounds since 1992 but, in reality, people with disabilities seem no better off. The window is dressed but the mannequins displayed remain immobile. That is the reality in South Africa in 2022, 30 years on. 

Let me explain, and to do so I must state that I am reflecting only on the issues and lifestyle impact of a wheelchair user in 2022. We are the minority compared with some other people with disabilities in terms of numbers, and to respect the challenges faced by all people with disabilities, whoever they may be, the only one advantage of being a wheelchair user is that you are clearly identified by your hardware and that can give you a competitive advantage in the space of avoiding harsh discrimination. People with invisible disabilities suffer greatly, and if my utterings help their journey by just an iota, I will have achieved something.

Almost immediately after discharge from hospital in my wheelchair in 1985, I realised there were very few buildings that I could access. The national building regulations were far from adequate. It was a disgrace and I realised that my town, city, my province and my country were terribly inaccessible.

I was to do something about that. It actually became my career. Legislation has changed and the building regulations have somewhat improved, even including a special Part S10400 (Facilities for People with Disabilities) under the South African National Standards, but for any of this to be a reality of access and integration, it needed to be understood, embraced, adopted, applied and policed. Sadly though, not nearly enough.

You see it’s either all or nothing if you are a wheelchair user, as each city or town becomes a minefield of its own, without an app or map to forewarn you of where you can or cannot go. The inconveniences are not only embarrassing, time-consuming and inconsiderate, but downright discriminating.

Whether you are trying to access a university, college, government building resource, place of employment or a holiday in a tourism environment, you can be stopped in your tracks by one or 20 stairs, a ramp that is far too steep, a building with no accessible toilet, a car park with no designated parking or a pavement with no scoop. It’s almost like landing on that block in Monopoly that says “Go to Jail” – the equivalent of “go home and stay home”.

The safety of wheelchair users in buildings is often an oversight, with evacuation methods and planning having ignored the needs of wheelchair users and people with mobility impairments.

The people who should be “going to jail” are the architects, developers, landlords, municipal authorities and policing authorities. That hasn’t happened yet, which just shows the ineffectiveness of the groundbreaking Equality Act. To even lodge a complaint at the Equality Court would surprise you with its own inaccessibility. The building environment has not evolved, as it should have in the past 30 years. 

The only solution to all of this is to underwrite universal access into all infrastructure development authority. That would make a huge impact in a short period of time and the ultimate beneficiary of that would be everyone.

Public transport is the most valuable asset a town or city can offer its residents and visitors. An integrated and accessible public transport system mobilises all citizens and brings a city alive. A system free of traffic jams, free of gridlock and free of road rage will ensure the embracing cities become the “city of choice” for communities.

But our public transport system is broken, bar a few initiatives. The Metrorail system, if working at all, does not cater for wheelchair users. There is a mismatch between platform and rolling stock.

The minibus taxi industry recapitalisation programme, which sounded so creative and innovative, has failed to accommodate wheelchair users. 

Long-haul buses are not accessible and most cities’ subsidised buses are also inaccessible. 

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which was a concept copied by government from South America, has failed to prove its worth for the mobility impaired sector. It is not seamless and the complementary services do not allow for door-to-door journeys. The ambitious roll-out has shortfalls that disadvantage wheelchair users.

Sadly, this is as a result of the mobility impaired sector not being adequately consulted as a stakeholder in the 12 cities’ planning or implementing BRTs. The Gautrain is an example of an accessible transport service and routing, and although it still has some critical flaws in its operational elements, it does provide an efficient and seamless solution for a minuscule percentage of the population travelling between OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg and Pretoria. Only the lucky few can enjoy its expensive convenience.

It is accessible public transport that gets people with mobility impairments to school, university or college, skills development training, employment, places of worship, the chance to spectate a sport and ultimately the freedom of the city. Anything less is a travesty. After 30 years we are paralysed and immobile, not by our disabilities, but by an underdeveloped public transport infrastructure and service.

There is still a stigma attached to disability and this on its own presents discrimination on any and every day. Sensitisation of disability has to start at school and continue during higher education. It can’t be imposed upon anyone nor enforced by legislation; it’s got to be part of the conversation from the time you can start speaking a language. We have to be mainstreamed from school and if that is successful, you can put a sunset clause on the Employment Equity Act. Still today, there is no disability sensitisation in school or higher education.

To be fair to government, since 1994 there has always been an intention through the new Constitution to provide equality and opportunity for all. This has not been achieved. Intentions need to elevate to reality, not only by piles of legislation but through the implementation and policing of such.

The disability sector has been vigilant since 1994 and crafted the Integrated National Disability Strategy, then ensured that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities was adopted by government, and this was domesticated by the White Paper on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

A lot of progress on paper – and a lot of applause and self-praise for this achievement over 30 years – but the impact of this will only be felt through a standalone Disability Act, and my wish is that the activists move hard and fast to ensure a legitimate celebration of the ultimate instrument for the achievement of a non-discriminatory and free environment.

South Africa is seen as the gold standard in human rights, but people with disabilities do not enjoy the same experience. Discrimination still exists for people with disabilities and Human Rights Day is a reminder of this.

Little did we know, when we incurred the injuries that created our disabilities, that it would be the start not of an inconvenience of sorts, but of full-blown discrimination. May the mannequins in that dressed-up window get some movement, opportunity and dignity in the new South Africa. DM


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