Work­places must ac­com­mo­date all lev­els of abil­ity

What use is it em­ploy­ing some­one who is a wheel­chair user if he or she can­not ne­go­ti­ate a flight of steps into a build­ing?

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION&ANALYSIS - The­rina Wentzel

PEO­PLE en­act laws – and peo­ple must ap­ply them fairly and con­sis­tently for all peo­ple to ben­e­fit. Who­ever they may be. South Africa has won­der­ful leg­is­la­tion to pro­tect and pro­mote the rights of per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties. But what is it worth if we don’t give ef­fect to it? What are we say­ing about our will­ing­ness to work with peo­ple ir­re­spec­tive of their im­pair­ment? What are we say­ing about our un­con­quered prej­u­dices, or our sense of hu­man­ity?

Sec­tion 9 of the Bill of Rights en­shrined in our Con­sti­tu­tion guar­an­tees that peo­ple may not face dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of dis­abil­ity (among other pre­scripts). It is un­am­bigu­ous, and clear.

Sec­tion 10, fur­ther, guar­an­tees the right to hu­man dig­nity. The word “dig­nity”, in the mod­ern con­text, has come to mean “re­spect” or “sta­tus”, and th­ese are valid def­i­ni­tions; but his­tor­i­cally – and legally – it has an­other mean­ing: wor­thi­ness. That is what the Latin word dig­ni­tas, from which it is de­rived, ac­tu­ally means.

The right to hu­man dig­nity, thus, refers to the right to be val­ued, re­spected and treated eth­i­cally. To have worth.

That’s worth think­ing on: what dig­nity re­ally means, and how we re­spect oth­ers’ dig­nity. Or not.

On a more prac­ti­cal level, our Em­ploy­ment Eq­uity Act (EEA) – en­acted in 1998, nearly 20 years ago – is in­tended to give ef­fect to Sec­tion 9 of the Con­sti­tu­tion. In le­gal terms, it is meant to achieve eq­uity in the work­place by pro­mot­ing equal op­por­tu­nity and fair treat­ment in em­ploy­ment through the elim­i­na­tion of un­fair dis­crim­i­na­tion.

In sim­ple terms, that means giv­ing per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties a fair shake at find­ing and win­ning a job, and be­ing able to do a job well and be pro­moted. The EEA re­quires em­ploy­ers (both pri­vate and the state) to take steps to pro­mote equal op­por­tu­nity and elim­i­nate un­fair dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Im­por­tant term

This brings into play an­other im­por­tant term: rea­son­able ac­com­mo­da­tion. What that means is that em­ploy­ers are re­quired to cre­ate works­paces which all peo­ple can eq­ui­tably ac­cess and work in.

What use is it em­ploy­ing some­one who is a wheel­chair user if he or she can­not ne­go­ti­ate a flight of steps into a build­ing or there is no lift for him/her to ac­cess the build­ing, for ex­am­ple? Or if the em­ployer has not been sen­si­tised about the rea­son­able ac­com­mo­da­tion rights of per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties?

Too of­ten, this is not done, with the ex­cuse that there is in­suf­fi­cient fund­ing, or that build­ings are not suit­able. The up­shot is that per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties are not ap­pointed or are placed in a com­pro­mis­ing sit­u­a­tion.

The ques­tion is, why is this so? Why do per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties make up less than 1 per­cent of our coun­try’s work­ing pop­u­la­tion? Per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties are, af­ter all, just as smart, well ed­u­cated, mo­ti­vated, ca­pa­ble and wor­thy as able-bod­ied peo­ple. Could it be that they are be­ing dis­crim­i­nated against be­cause of their dis­abil­ity, which is il­le­gal?

The Na­tional Coun­cil of and for Per­sons with Dis­abil­i­ties (NCPD) has taken up the cud­gels on be­half of a para­medic who is cur­rently en­dur­ing such dis­crim­i­na­tion – and whose man­agers, in­stead of ac­com­mo­dat­ing him, have made his work­ing con­di­tions in­tol­er­a­ble and ig­nored his com­plaints. Would they have done the same to an able-bod­ied per­son? I think not.

In short, the para­medic (whom we shall not name, as his complaint is on­go­ing) is a wheel­chair user. This does not stop him from do­ing an im­por­tant – and life­sav­ing – job: he is an emer­gency care of­fi­cer in a pro­vin­cial con­trol room, where he dis­patches am­bu­lances to emer­gen­cies and tele­phon­i­cally pro­vides med­i­cal ad­vice.

Lifts not main­tained

But, be­cause the con­trol room is sit­u­ated in a gov­ern­ment build­ing where rea­son­able ac­com­mo­da­tion has not been ap­plied – even though it was of­fi­cially opened in 2015, years af­ter the Pro­mo­tion of Equal­ity and Preven­tion of Un­fair Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act and EEA came into ef­fect – and the lifts have not been main­tained, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble for him to get to the con­trol room. There is no park­ing for per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties, doors are not ac­ces­si­ble and there is no fire es­cape.

His man­agers’ so­lu­tion? With­out of­fi­cial no­ti­fi­ca­tion, they shipped him off to a district con­trol cen­tre in a hos­pi­tal 35km away, where he has sat at a desk be­tween a ca­su­alty wait­ing room full of sick, cough­ing peo­ple and a smelly sluice room.

The pa­tients can hear his con­ver­sa­tions, com­pro­mis­ing the con­fi­den­tial­ity of the peo­ple he as­sists. And there are no emer­gency ex­its for per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties, putting him at risk. He is also un­able to ac­cess train­ing and pro­mo­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties, so his ca­reer is ham­pered. The pro­vin­cial health depart­ment for which he works has, on top of the laws it is sup­posed to obey, its own Code of Good Prac­tice on Em­ploy­ment of Per­sons with Dis­abil­i­ties.

This lofty doc­u­ment states that em­ploy­ers must rea­son­ably ac­com­mo­date per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties to re­duce the im­pact of their im­pair­ment on their abil­ity to do their work; em­ploy­ers must use cost-ef­fec­tive ways to pro­vide eq­ui­table work­ing space and ex­pe­ri­ence.

Have his em­ploy­ers ac­tu­ally fol­lowed their own code of prac­tice when it comes to him? Of course they have not. Have they dis­crim­i­nated against him in the way they have treated him? Of course they have.

And they add in­sult to in­jury by ig­nor­ing his pleas to be ac­com­mo­dated, which they are obliged to do. Have they treated him as a wor­thy mem­ber of staff? Again, would they likely be­have in this way with an able-bod­ied em­ployee?

The NCPD took this mat­ter up on the para­medic’s be­half – but his man­age­ment ig­nored us, too, forc­ing us to take the le­gal route. Now, months down the line, man­age­ment has backed down: the lifts in the pro­vin­cial build­ing have just been re­paired, al­low­ing him to re­turn to work at his orig­i­nal place of work. Park­ing is also now be­ing made avail­able to him, and the lack of a fire es­cape – in a build­ing that is less than five years old – is be­ing in­ves­ti­gated, as is im­prov­ing ground-floor ac­cess.

But the para­medic still faces dis­crim­i­na­tion, in other ways. Now that he is be­ing re­turned to his orig­i­nal work­place, he is be­ing pe­nalised by be­ing made to work of­fice hours only – on sta­tis­tics – in­stead of para­medic shift work. So he will no longer earn over­time for work­ing nights, week­ends and pub­lic hol­i­days.

Re­al­ity

Mr Bum­ble, the hen­pecked hus­band in Charles Dick­ens’ clas­sic Oliver Twist, de­clares that “the law is an ass” – a don­key, a fool, be­cause it as­sumes he has con­trol over his dom­i­neer­ing wife. In re­al­ity, our laws are smart and we are the fools: we have th­ese won­der­ful tools at our dis­posal to end dis­crim­i­na­tion and in­dig­nity. But in our hearts we still har­bour un­jus­ti­fi­able prej­u­dice against per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties, and so we choose to break the law in­stead.

Yet it doesn’t have to be that way, and the NCPD can as­sist. The NCPD is a won­der­ful re­source for all em­ploy­ers to use in cre­at­ing work­places that ac­com­mo­date all lev­els of abil­ity. We are avail­able to ad­vise and con­sult on how to ap­ply rea­son­able ac­com­mo­da­tion in the work­place, and how to in­clude per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties into a work­force and em­brace a di­verse work­force.

It is, af­ter all, the law. But the law doesn’t ap­ply it­self; peo­ple do that. Peo­ple dis­crim­i­nate, and other peo­ple suf­fer, but peo­ple also have the ca­pac­ity to end dis­crim­i­na­tion and re­store hu­man dig­nity. The­rina Wentzel is the na­tional di­rec­tor of the NCPD.

PHOTO: DUMISANI SIBEKO

Baset­sana Masekoa and Sibu­siso Maz­ibuko dur­ing the wheel­chair race as part of the dis­abil­ity aware­ness cam­paign held in Vosloorus, Ekurhuleni, in this file pic­ture. Pre­vent­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion for dis­abled peo­ple is the aim of the NCPD.

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