When Takalani Munyai walked the ramp at the Unique Me beauty pageant on Nov.13, she didn’t just do it for the possibility of a crown and the sash. She did it for others like her: South Africans living with a disability.

“As a person who is living with a disability, I know that most people who have got any form of disability often lack confidence,” said the 42-year-old from Ha-Magau outside Louis Trichardt in Limpopo.  “I participated in the Unique Me beauty pageant to inspire confidence in all those who still think that they cannot do certain things in life just because they have a disability.”

The Unique Me beauty pageant takes place Vhembe each year and celebrates people living with disability. It falls within National Disability Awareness Month, held from 3 November and 3 December, which is International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

Impressing the judges with her confidence on the ramp and her thoughtful answers during the Q&A round, Munyai was crowned Queen of the Unique Me pageant. Munyai, who has four children of her own, is heartbroken when she hears that parents are still ashamed of their children with disabilities.

“It pains me when I hear stories of some parents who still hide their disabled children from the public, denying them their rights,” she says. “I joined and participated in a beauty pageant for disabled people to show other disabled people that having a disability does not mean that one cannot live his or her life to the fullest.”

‘Life despite disability’

Disability Awareness Month Events

Takalani Munyai wants people living with disabilities to live with confidence. (Ndivhuwo Mukwevho/Health-e News)

Uafhindula Lalamani founded the non-profit organisation Unique Me to empower people living with disabilities. The pageant is a meant to be a fun activity that also inspires people with disability. The NPO is hosting other activities throughout Disability Awareness month in the Vhembe district.

“It is important that we encourage people with disabilities to participate in various fun activities such as the Unique Me beauty pageant as we never know what the future holds,” says Lalamani. “One day such things can be their career paths. Such activities also instil hope and confidence to disabled people that there is a life despite disability.”

Around 15% of the global population—over a billion people—lives with some form of disability, according to the World Health Organisation. Of these people, fewer than four per cent experience significant difficulties in functioning.

Women and older persons are more likely to experience disability, says WHO. In addition, low-and middle-income countries have higher rates of disability than wealthier nations.

Ending the silence of stigma

Despite the number of people living with a disability, shame and embarrassment persist, says disability rights activist Regina Mary Ndlovu.

“As persons with disabilities, we are not honest enough to a point of breaking all shame, all worry, all embarrassment,” she says. “If I know that I am in a wheelchair or wearing a diaper and I know I need to have access to a toilet because my bladder does not work, it’s an embarrassment to tell people that. But, once they know I will be able to have that accessible to me any time I need.”

Ndlovu says it’s important for people with disabilities to articulate their needs, even at state level.

“The government does not know what exactly I need, they know I have a need but to what extent or to what way I need it is not clear,” says Ndlovu. She uses her own experiences of trauma to break the silence around disability.

“As people with albinism we are attacked everyday consistently about different things such as we are rich, we can cure people and we don’t,” she says. “But who is brave enough to stand out and say listen I am HIV positive, because I was raped over 15 times by people who think I can cure them and I couldn’t. But, because of stigma you keep quiet and there is no help and the government can only do what they are told.”

November is Disability Rights Awareness Month! We all need to work together for a society that’s more inclusive for people living with disabilities and recognise that people living with disabilities have equal rights as able bodied people. #disabilityinclusion #disabilityrights pic.twitter.com/Jlhlfd9Aou

— The 100% Foundation (@100pcFoundation) November 16, 2020

Coping with Covid-19

Since the start of the pandemic, people with disabilities have struggled to access basic amenities, like transportation says Limpopo Association of & for Persons with Disability (APD). The APD, in existence in 1970, promotes the advancement of persons with physical and intellectual disabilities in province. Their aim is to help them attain independence and integration in the community. This could be anything from helping people with disabilities find work or raising awareness in communities.

With people unable to access their offices during the Covid-19 lockdown, the APD took their services to the community. They delivered food and masks to people with disabilities, who are particularly vulnerable during this time.

“Their immune system is compromised and therefor they are extra vulnerable to getting Covid-19,” the organisation says via email. “Where possible we supplied them with the necessary vitamins, and we complied with all the rules and regulations of Covid-19.  Persons with disability in the community had difficulty accessing our services so APD took the services to them.” — Health-e News