The recent arbitration hearings into the Life Esidimeni tragedy brought to light a string of events that experts and veteran South African human rights activists predicted for months but were unable to prevent.
In 2016, at least 143 patients died after being transferred to NGOs that were not equipped to care for them.
In a recent policy brief, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) says this tragedy serves as a stark reminder of the untenable obstacles that people with disabilities still face in South Africa. The commission writes that merely defining the term ‘disability’ is contentious. The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities describes it as an ‘evolving concept’ defined more by the lack of an enabling environment than by individual capacity.
Disability can be caused by physical and intellectual impairments as well as mental health conditions. In the Life Esidimeni case, we saw that some of the most vulnerable patients had a combination of these impairments.
Every year, South Africa observes National Disability Rights Awareness Month (November) and Mental Health Awareness month (October) and in this edition of the HSRC Review, we profile three of our researchers who live with hearing and sight impairments. We do this recognising that among us, there are many more living with perhaps more silent types of disability that they are not yet ready to be open about as they fear stigma.
In his article about disability, Tim Hart writes about moving perceptions away from medical and welfare models to social and human rights understandings of disability, employment equity issues and the need for inclusive design of buildings and infrastructure to be the norm rather than the exception. In another article, Hart writes about the difficulty people with mental health conditions experience around disclosure. In an interview about his own hearing disability, he emphasises the diverse needs of people with disabilities, which require individual rather than universal solutions.
At a recent HSRC seminar, experts in education for learners who are deaf and hard of hearing shared their insights about the poor education outcomes in this group. They also propose and are already testing some successful interventions.
In this edition, Leana Meiring writes about her experience of a social support intervention for people with severe mental illness. Recognising the dangers of social isolation, a group of students supported mental health patients in a primary healthcare setting to establish meaningful connections with others.
As seen in the Life Esidimeni case, government officials averted legal action by activists, assuring them that the patients would be moved in a properly controlled process. This did not happen, despite the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act prohibiting the removal of supporting or enabling facilities that people with disabilities need to function in society. The SAHRC writes in its policy brief that this provision was “severely violated”.
This raises the question of adherence and implementation of court decisions and agreements that relate to the socio-economic rights of our most vulnerable. In another article Prof. Narnia Bohler-Muller, Adv Gary Pienaar, Dr Michael Cosser and Dr Gerard Hagg write about the extent to which decisions of the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court of Appeal contributed to the realisation of socio-economic rights and promotion of equality.
Along with Hart, Bohler-Muller and HSRC researcher Lungelo Mlangeni, who both live with visual disabilities, are also profiled in this edition.
Polite Maporisa (25) from Salvokop in Pretoria obtained a bicycle that was used to convert his wheelchair into a handcycle. Before the conversion, his arms used to tire quickly while he commuted. A simple action like mounting a curb, was a challenge in areas that are not wheelchair-friendly. These days, he rapidly covers kilometres in an around the City of Tshwane without needing assistance.