/ 1 September 2022

Casual Day raises questions about the visibility and belonging of disabled South Africans

Source: Facebook.

Casual Day will be celebrated tomorrow, 2 September, as it is every year. The National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities’s fundraising and awareness campaign, which encourages the public to purchase stickers and merchandise in support of several organisations, is celebrating its 27th year. The theme for this year’s event is the rather upbeat #ICelebrateSA. As a person with a disability, I’m not sure there is much to celebrate, though.

Over the past few weeks, I have had the immense privilege to speak to high school learners at special schools about their lives, their experiences at school and in their communities, and their hopes for and concerns about the future. 

These young people, all with visual impairments, spoke about the ways in which they are negatively impacted by gender-based violence, racism, substance abuse and disability discrimination. They worried about the future – that negative ideas about the capabilities of visually impaired people would prevent them from finding employment, that others would treat them badly and that their talents would not be recognised or valued. 

They were also concerned about the lack of resources and subject choices at their schools, most of which do not offer pure maths, physical science or accounting. They understood that, without these subjects, their options for further study and employment would be severely limited. With the South African National Council for the Blind estimating that unemployment rates for visually impaired South Africans may be as high as 97%, the fears expressed by these learners are not unfounded.

Yet, facing significant challenges, these young people explained that it was their duty to be resilient and to counteract negative stereotypes about visual impairment and blindness so they would be included. I internalised a similar message as a young person experiencing progressive sight loss – that the world was not going to welcome me and that it was my responsibility to fit in. This is what society expects from people with disabilities, unfailingly positive people who persist in overcoming the barriers that society constructs and maintains against them. 

Disability inclusion is often viewed, not as a right, but as dependent upon the internal strength and determination of individual people with disabilities. Surrounded by this message, people with disabilities might come to feel that a mistake, a bad day, a lost temper, a failed exam has not only dire consequences for them as individuals but also reflects badly on the entire disabled population. This is a heavy burden for anyone, not least a teenager, to bear.

After more than 25 years of democracy, there has been little progress made towards achieving full socioeconomic inclusion and equality for people with disabilities. The Life Esidimeni tragedy is quickly fading from public awareness – if it had a place there to begin with. Those who work in the disability rights arena often feel as though we are having the same conversations that we were having two decades ago – and we are. Disability continues to be viewed as an individual problem, a problem to do with bodies that are different, rather than as a problem that rests with a social fabric that is hostile to this difference.

Casual Day is an important campaign because it raises much-needed funds to support organisations that provide direct services to people with disabilities. Many such organisations have withstood further reductions in government funding in the last year, making funds raised from private individuals, companies and schools even more vital to their survival. Yet, this campaign, and others like it, raise uneasy questions for me about visibility and invisibility, belonging and not belonging.

On Casual Day this year, how many children will enjoy wearing their casual clothes in schools where learners and teachers with disabilities are not welcome? How many businesspeople will proudly wear their stickers in workplaces that are inaccessible and unwilling to adapt to include employees with disabilities? 

In the past, disability was kept firmly out of sight in special schools, residential institutions and sheltered workshops. Despite seemingly progressive policies on inclusive education, disability employment targets and anti-discrimination, this situation does not appear to be much changed. People with disabilities are rarely our colleagues, our teachers, our doctors or our business managers. Disability does not feature in our school curricula, let alone in our actual classrooms and playgrounds. 

For many who support Casual Day, disability will remain a distant thing, largely out of sight on the fringes of society, and inclusion will remain viewed as someone else’s responsibility. Awareness might be raised about the difficulties facing people with disabilities, but as long as those difficulties are viewed as more about them (their different bodies) than about us (our inaccessible world), the status quo will remain intact.

So, what is there to celebrate? I choose to celebrate us – people with disabilities. We should not have to be so resilient, but we so often are, and it’s hard. I celebrate the people with disabilities who, both formally and informally, promote disability equality, who patiently have the same conversations over and over again with politician after politician, with employer after employer. I celebrate the intellect and humour of the young people it has been my delight to spend time with recently. I celebrate our families and the people who support us.

Support Casual Day. Organisations need your financial support more than ever, but think about the spaces you occupy. Look around and notice who is there and who is not, who the space welcomes and who it does not, and ask yourself why.

Dr Michelle Botha is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.