International Day of Persons with Disabilities

“There is no greater disability in society, than the inability to see a person as more.” Robert M. Hensel

South Africa has approximately three million persons living with disabilities, equating to about 7.5% of the country’s population. The acceptance of people with disabilities is an ever-changing and ever-evolving process in all societies. Historically, people with disabilities have been excluded from the majority of meaningful activities in society, including access to education, health and economic opportunities (Albert & Hurst, 2004). Disabilities are most often seen as medical defects that must be cured by doctors, a restrictive approach often referred to as the “medical model”. In most societies, people with disabilities are an oppressed minority, and are often seen as having a negative effect on society.

In response to this systematic bias, disability advocates and researchers have called greater attention to the need to break down historic barriers that prevent people with disabilities from fully participating in mainstream activities, effectively promoting their inclusion as full members of society and empowering them to maximise their own level of self-determination. In a limited number of countries, governments have adopted legislation favouring actions aimed at providing disabled persons with equal access to all services and activities, however, not all of these countries have fully implemented changes. In most countries of the developing world, people with disabilities are still largely forgotten and destined to a world of seclusion, i.e., denied the freedoms enjoyed by able-bodied persons. Even in South Africa, where the plight of the disadvantaged has been recognised in the South African Constitution, little has been done to actively integrate people with disabilities – particular women, youth, poor and rural residents – into mainstream society.

The annual observance of 3 December as international disability day was intended to promote the rights and inclusion of people with disabilities in all spheres of life. It however seems as if this day has just become like any other. All we have to do is look around us, observe and listen to the lived realities of the majority of people with disabilities in South Africa to see that there has been little to minimal change in their situation in every aspect of life- including economic, cultural and socio-political. Despite the observance of this day, being subjected to prejudice, social injustice, exclusion and marginalisation particularly in the areas of job creation, education and community integration are experienced by people with disabilities on a daily basis. Unless a commitment to inclusion and justice for people with disabilities become a focal point on our agenda, accompanied with real and relevant change in the life situation of people with disabilities 3 December will just become another meaningless day.

The much-anticipated ArtsAbility festival 2019, was presented by the Unmute Dance Theatre in association with the Artscape Theatre Centre celebrated the International Week for Persons Living with Disabilities from 28 November – 3 December at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town, with the aim of educating and entertaining. Unmute ArtsAbility Festival has entered its 4th year of showcasing groundbreaking, inclusive, multi-disciplinary art works to a South African audience. The festival is an annual integrated arts platform that presents world-class collaborative artistic works by artists with mixed abilities (artists living with and without disabilities). This festival incorporates dance, live music, poetry, visual arts, film, fashion design, art installations, theatre and site-specific performances as a medium to challenge the public’s misconception on people living with disabilities. These artworks will encourage people to break stereotypes and educate people about living in an integrated and inclusive society.

Human Rights and the rights of persons with disabilities should be incorporated in our everyday actions without waiting to celebrate it annually on a specific day. It should be showcased in our daily interactions toward one another, where our humanity acknowledges another human being for being whom they are, individuals within their own right.