Does democracy discriminate against the disabled?

“You can judge a nation by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens.” This is a quote that has been credited to a variety of prominent historic figures such as Aristotle and Mahatma Ghandi. It has also evolved with time and been applied in differing contexts. Within the South African context, former president Thabo Mbeki made reference to this quote in an Integrated National Disability Strategy (INDS) White Paper in 1997. He wrote that among the yardsticks by which to measure a society’s respect for human rights, to evaluate the level of its maturity and its generosity of spirit by looking at the status that it accords to those members of society who are most vulnerable, disabled people, senior citizens and its children. Furthermore, he added that the concept of a caring society is strengthened when we recognize that disabled people enjoy the same rights as we do and that we have a responsibility towards the promotion of their quality of life.

This vignette was written with only three years into democracy relating to the importance of addressing the inequalities in physical abilities amongst South Africa’s citizens. We are much deeper into democracy today and it has been hailed as a system that should be celebrated by an involved public in its broadest entirety. Civil liberties have improved self-expression, raised questions for decolonization and stimulated desires amongst minorities to participate in the decisions affecting their lives. These are some of the aspects that define the norms of South Africa’s democratic political and social system in 2016. Such democratic ideals have also been integrated into the way general government institutions and state-aided educational institutions such as universities are modeled.

To some extent educational institutions of higher learning, especially the previously advantaged universities such as Stellenbosch, Cape Town, Pretoria and Wits have been successful in meeting national policy requirements of recruiting and attracting students from more diverse sections of society. These diverse sections include students with wide-ranging disabilities. They also form part of universities’ student bodies, although forming a minority. This means they do not form part of mainstream society that universities are primarily built for however they require just the same if not more of the quality skills that university education has to offer. In spite of showing poor equity indices, universities continue to score well as high-level knowledge producers. This is largely due to continuation of appealing to normative mainstream majority demands of what leadership ought to be.

As a product of the special school environment whereby only pupils with disabilities were enrolled, I fully identify with the challenges that come with making the transition from such a background to tertiary. This is just simply too high a jump (no pun intended) for learners with special needs due to a variety of reason, might it be financial or management of the actual disability. From a representational point of view, this presents a brain drain-like quandary whereby a sizable under-educated disability minority ends up being underrepresented only by a handful of like-minded graduates at broader policy-making level. So, while it’s a small step and a taken for granted expectation for able-bodied scholars to enter tertiary level, it is a giant leap for scholars with disabilities as there a larger interests vested upon them.

My narrative within this mainstream environment has had wide-ranging experiences but without a doubt features one common dominant thread. In most cases, this is how students in general have reacted to me and other members of the disabled community. Many immediately get apologetic, while others try very hard to compensate. There are also those who make fun in a conscious or unconscious attempt to lessen their own discomfort. Many fall victim to ethnocentric interrogation in order to familiarize themselves with you in order to correctly communicate with or treat you like the human being that you are. All these reactions may be a global phenomenon but in South Africa, where there are still so many social and economic divisions, disability unfortunately becomes yet another cause for marginalization.

Universities are not merely producers of valuable research and knowledge but also of future thought and critical leaders, including of those with disabilities. If universities claim to be embracing and promoting barrier-free visions but are unable to confront problematic attitudinal and physical barriers that continue to disable certain sectors of society, how do they remain enticing, compelling and most importantly future-focused? How do mainstream society future leaders become minority informed and centric in their approach to leadership? How much value are they really going to add to society if they have kept navigating within a world solely built to suit their comfort and functionality ease? Have so-called majority-centric democratic policies failed the disabled minority?

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