by Jeremy Opperman and Lois Strachan
To say that South Africa is a complex country with regard to disability in general and blindness in particular would be a woeful understatement. Some explanation and historical context may be helpful.
South Africa as a democratic country is less than 30 years old. Prior to 1994 it was a racially divided and segregated society. At face value, this could be stated as a divide between Black and White.
However, when one unpacks the multitude of permutations affecting color, creed, wealth, poverty, class, and disability, a far more complex image emerges. The following brief essay must be read with these challenges in mind.
It seems sensible to start with legislation. South Africa does not have purpose-built disability legislation such as the ADA in the U.S. We have several benign acts that support non-discrimination or affirmative action, but nothing specific. Ironically, we have one of the few constitutions in the world that specifically mentions disability.
Our strongest Act of Parliament that explicitly acknowledges disability is the Employment Equity Act. It clearly states that people with disabilities must be considered for affirmative action in terms of employment, along with women and people of color. But without similar legislation supporting access to other crucial elements such as transportation, education and general accessibility to facilities and amenities, people with disabilities, including the blind, remain vulnerable.
It is in this context that we must view the lives of the more than a million blind people in South Africa.
Only a small percentage of the blind in any society will have been blind since birth or childhood. Therefore, blind education is only reflective of those who had early, congenital blindness causes.
South Africa has 22 schools for the blind that vary in resources, support and quality of education. This is one of the starkest reminders we have of our regrettably segregated past, since the differences can easily be traced to the schools separated originally by color.
Having said that, a handful of blind schools, including some previously intended for students of color, provide exceptionally good primary and secondary education. This is borne out by the impressive educational trajectory of some blind people who came through the system. However, the great majority of blind students barely achieve their high school diploma.
Another regrettable fact is that increasingly, math and science are no longer being taught at these schools, which limits the choices many have after school. There is a slowly growing number of mainstream schools that are taking in a few blind and low-vision learners which will hopefully broaden their opportunities. Fortunately, the number of blind students attending university reflects the growing capability of universities to be able to accommodate them.
Unlike many developed countries, South Africa has a universally dismal record of employment of people across the disability spectrum. Historically, blind employment was more robust compared to most other disabilities, due in large part to the global practice of encouraging blind people to work on telephone switchboards, a practice made popular since the end of the first world war.
It is not uncommon to find telephonists who have served their companies for over 30 years. This stereotype was reinforced by the fact that most blind schools that offered high school diplomas also offered training in switchboard operation. This practice continues today. Many blind people have begun their careers as switchboard operators, including these authors.
Notwithstanding impressive university degrees, far too many blind job seekers are not even considered for positions that they could do with their eyes closed. This results in almost all blind people being either underemployed or unemployed.
But it is always gratifying to hear about well-employed blind South Africans. Of these, two distinct groups emerge: those that are employed in the blind or disability sector, often achieving prominent positions such as CEOs of non-profit organizations, including a South African World Blind Union past president. The other group are those who have nothing to do with the disability sector. In SA we have blind people in senior positions in government, including a past minister of justice, a constitutional court judge, lawyers, industrial and clinical psychologists, several MBA recipients with correspondingly appropriate corporate positions, chiropractors, physiotherapists, bankers, journalists, academics, various IT positions including programmers, analysts, and a blind actuary. In addition, there are many entrepreneurs operating with varying degrees of success.
Sadly, the fact remains that well over 90 to 95% of blind and visually impaired people are unemployed.
Access to Orientation and Mobility Instruction
South Africa is twice the size of Texas. The 60 million inhabitants are based in cities and major towns or in dense urban satellite “townships,” or live in far-flung and inaccessible rural areas.
We have very few trained orientation and mobility instructors to serve the blind in the country despite there being a world-class College of Orientation and Mobility in Johannesburg, situated on the campus of the South African Guide Dog Association. There are few employment opportunities for O&M instructors due to funding constraints at NGOs. As a result, congenital and late-onset blind people are often overlooked in terms of O&M training. This leads to a perceived inability to manage even basic tasks in a rural homestead, such as fetching water, cooking, cleaning, or going anywhere unassisted.
Rare as it is, it is heart-warming to see the evidence of O&M provided to a rural blind person and to see their newly won independence. In urban areas, access to O&M is somewhat easier as there are more blind service organizations, but there are still far too few instructors.
We have a well-established 66-year-old guide dog organization, which has allowed thousands of blind guide dog users considerable independence, including both these writers.
There is a direct correlation between blind people having had decent O&M training or access to guide dogs and their utilization of public transit. Public transit options include rail, bus, and minibus taxi. Also, there is a vibrant Uber market in most of the urban centers. Minibus taxis are ubiquitous, while the quality and extent of a rail system depends on the city one lives in.
As with most large rural countries, mass transit is limited in rural settings. There are few audio-described routes and destination points. Only one rail link in Johannesburg has proper audio prompting.
South Africa has a long history of providing blind people with access to braille, tape, and online reading material. However, the selection of material is limited due to the prevailing book famine for blind people, which is made worse since South Africa has inexplicably still not signed and ratified the Marrakesh Treaty. Blind South Africans have only limited access to titles on Bookshare, the world’s largest library of accessible material. Similarly, access to legitimate audio-described film and TV media is mostly confined to Netflix. However, there is a fledgling audio description industry which promises to provide more AD for local TV productions.
South Africa is well known for its innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. This can be seen in the innovative ways solutions have been sought to overcome numerous access challenges. This includes locally produced accessible voting templates and additional local language options for screen readers. South Africa has offered accessible ballot templates for blind voters since 2014.
South Africa is a keen sporting nation, acquitting itself well at disabled sporting events like the Paralympics and World Championships. We have a keen interest in blind cricket, bowls, and goalball, and won one of the first Blind Cricket World Cup contests held in India in the 1990s.
While this overview may appear bleak, it is a microcosm of the larger situation in South Africa generally. The South African government faces complex challenges relating to the lack of resources in all sectors, and the needs of members of the disability community do not rank high on the list of national priorities. However, there is good work being done by numerous organizations to accommodate the needs of the blind community, and every success brings hope to us as a community.
About the Authors
Jeremy Opperman is an experienced disability inclusion consultant and speaks and writes widely. He serves on the boards of several blind organizations and is a keen Rotarian. You can find him on www.disabilitydesk.co.za and LinkedIn.
Lois Strachan is a bestselling author, speaker and podcaster who uses her platform to raise awareness of the capabilities of those who are blind and visually impaired. Find her on www.loisstrachan.com or on social media.