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Living with disabilities: Human rights pushed under COVID-19 radar

People living with disabilities have had some of their basic human rights denied or neglected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many South Africans living with disabilities have struggled to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Freepik)
Written by Ndivhuwo Mukwevho

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has revealed an ugly truth. People living with various disabilities are being denied basic human rights like healthcare, communication, education, safety and employment to name a few.

These findings have come to light as the country marks National Disability Rights Awareness Month from 3 November to 3 December 2021. Conducted by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Regional Office for Southern Africa, the study confirmed that people with disabilities need to be heard to ensure their human rights aren’t overlooked or excluded during future pandemics.

The three-month research which started in November last year, included adults, parents, students and children with disabilities.

‘Long before COVID-19’

But Looks Matoto who is the deputy chairperson of human rights at the Disabled People South Africa (DPSA), believes people living with disabilities have been faced with various challenges long before the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic exposed that disability is a face of poverty in South Africa. Many disabled people have been locked down before COVID-19. We have been isolated from work as very few are employed. We have been indoors for too long,” said Matoto.

“COVID-19 has exposed the level of inequalities, but as disabled people, we have been aware of it because we are the recipients of these inequalities.”

Matoto was speaking at a virtual discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities in South Africa.

He said he is concerned that many disabled people are not finding employment due to the limited job opportunities available.

“Disabled people are not being employed and when we speak about this, we are often accused of complaining. We face the burden of poverty, exclusion and lack of universal access. We are really tired of fighting,” he added.

Part of everyday life

Disability is part of being human, almost everyone will temporarily or permanently experience disability at some point in their life. Over one billion people, about 15% of the global population, live with some type of disability. And, this number is climbing according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Tinyiko Gwambe, a social work graduate, was born with no limbs and is wheelchair-bound. A lack of employment is getting her down and she is losing faith with job applications never bearing any good news.

The cost of living is proving too much, with her disability grant falling short to cover all her expenses and special needs.

“I am frustrated and can’t keep up,” said the former University of Pretoria student.

“I’m using an electric wheelchair which has died because batteries are very expensive and I can’t afford to replace them. Two batteries cost about R8000. I have to rely on other people to push me around which is a problem when no one is available.”

Sitting at home only adds to stress

With frustration levels high, she decided to enroll for a master’s degree to keep her mind busy. But, due to COVID-19, this hasn’t helped much with all classes now online.

“Being at home all day makes one worry about the issue of unemployment,” said Gwambe, who is originally from Limpopo.

Like Matoto, Gwambe said things were dire for people living with disabilities way before COVID-19.

“Things have become worse because our economy took a knock. This will make it even more difficult for us to secure employment both in the public and private sectors.”

According to a 2011 Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) report released on persons with disabilities, the national disability prevalence rate is 7,5%. Persons with disabilities increase with age and more than half (53,2) of persons aged 85 plus, reported having a disability.

Employment struggles

Lufuno Khakhu, also from Limpopo, believes that COVID-19 has hindered her chances of finding a place to do practical learning after completing her Farming Management studies.  She was born disabled and uses callipers-raised shoes with crunches to walk because her left leg is shorter than her right.

“I won’t be able to receive my certificate because I first have to complete an 18-month field practical. But due to COVID-19 and job losses, I have been struggling to find a place to my practical,” said Khakhu.

Khakhu believes that most people are reluctant to employ or give job opportunities to people who are living with a disability.

“The future looks bleak. If I can’t even find a place to do my practical without compensation, imagine trying to find proper employment? We need urgent help as people living with disabilities,” she added.

Limited opportunities pre-pandemic

According to the United Nations study, most persons with disabilities did not have equal access to employment opportunities across the globe. And this is due to many factors, including inferior education, a lack of accessible transportation, negative attitudes towards disability by employers, unfounded assumptions of the capabilities of persons with disabilities and a lack of assistive devices.

“As a result, most persons with disabilities are unemployed. Persons with disabilities are also more likely to lose their jobs and experience greater difficulties returning to work after natural disasters and pandemics,” states the study. – Health-e News.

About the author

Ndivhuwo Mukwevho

Ndivhuwo Mukwevho is citizen journalist who is based in the Vhembe District of Limpopo province. He joined OurHealth in 2015 and his interests lie in investigative journalism and reporting the untold stories of disadvantaged rural communities. Ndivhuwo holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Media Studies from the University of Venda and he is currently a registered student with UNISA.

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