Some of the biggest milestones for disabled rights over the last 50 years were legislation based, but is the legislation being implemented? Madelaine Page and Jamaine Krige report.

The founding of the DPSA, the establishmentof the Office on the Status of Disabled People in the Presidency in 1995, the inclusion of a non-discrimination clause in the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution in 1996, the adoption of the Employment Equity Act in 1998 and the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2008 all played a vital role in bringing the rights of people with disabilities to the forefront.

Ari Seirlis, National Director of the Quadriplegic Association of South Africa (QASA), believes the Equity Act promulgated in 1999 is probably the most powerful piece of legislation regarding disabled rights in South Africa. When asked what existing legislation means to people with disabilities, Ari answers: "It gives us the opinion and the confidencethat we have got rights. And so we know that, if we follow a process, eventhough quite complicated and even expensive, we have the opportunity tochallenge people who transgress our human rights as equal South Africans."

Although the rights of people with disabilities are today accepted as a norm, legislation is still inadequate, says William Roland, Honorary President for the SA National Council for the Blind and of Disabled People South Africa. William is also the immediate past president of the World Blind Union. The focus should be on the implementation of the CRPD that has the force of international law in South Africa.

Ari agrees, adding that prior to 1994 there was a lack of strong lobbying and advocacy. A lot of credit must therefore be given to the existing government and the comrades within the disability sector for bringing human rights onto the agenda for people with disabilities. However, we must be honest and say that, although we have all of the legislation which preserves rights of people with disabilities, and offers opportunities, we are short of policies which make this work.  Like William, Ari feels implementation is lacking, as is buy-in from civil society and government. We have lost some momentum with regards to the movement.

William explains that the turning point forSouth Africa came in 1984, when the representative body Disabled People SouthAfrica (DPSA) was established, by disabled people, with the vision of A South Africa Accessible to All. DPSA is recognised as a national assembly of disabled people by Disabled PeopleInternational (DPI), which has observer status in the UN. The organisationfought to have disability viewed as a human rights and development issue ratherthan a charity or welfare issue.

He says this was a vital move in the rightdirection. Although disabled people do not need their own set of rights,existing fundamental rights have to be emphasised in the disability context. During the negotiation of the CRPD, the UN guideline was that there would be no new rights, only existing rights extended to disabled people. To Ari the signing of the United Nations Declaration on the rights of People with disabilities constitutes the biggest milestone over the past 50 years.

People with disabilities only really started benefitting from labour legislation in 1998 with the implementation of the Employment Equity Act and various other policy documents and national strategies, says William. These were further enhanced by other acts protecting the general rights of people with disabilities, such as the South African Constitution, the Labour Relations Act and the Equality Legislation.

Disabled people must revive their activism

When asked to rank South Africa on the progress we have made William gives us 5/10. Ari only gives a dismal 4/10! Ari believes the solution lies in a stand-alone disability act.  Up till now much of the current legislation had been overlooked. We therefore need a disability act that encompasses everything that is in the UN Convention on the rights of people with disabilities.

When comparing SouthAfrica's progress to the rest of the world William said: "We compare poorly with industrialised countries and fairly well with developing countries, but implementation of legislation and government programs is lacking. The CRPD mustbe properly implemented and independently monitored. Disabled people must revive their activism."