Let’s give effect to laws protecting disabled in workplace
We have a wonderful arsenal of tools at our disposal to end discrimination – so let’s make use of it
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. However, what is it worth if we don’t give effect to it?
Section 9 of the Bill of Rights enshrined in the constitution guarantees that people may not face discrimination on the basis of disability, among other prescripts.
The Employment Equity Act (EEA) enacted in 1998, nearly 20 years ago, is intended to give effect to Section 9 of the constitution. It requires employers to take steps to promote equal opportunity and eliminate unfair discrimination.
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?
Too often, this is not done, with the excuse that there is insufficient funding, or that buildings are not suitable.
Why do people with disabilities make up less than 1% of our country’s working population? They are just as smart, educated, motivated, capable and worthy as able-bodied people. Could it be that they are being discriminated against?
The National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD) has taken up the cudgels on behalf of a paramedic who has been enduring such discrimination – and whose managers, instead of accommodating him, have made his working conditions intolerable and ignored his complaints. The paramedic is a wheelchair user but 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.
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 – 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 been placed 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. There are no emergency exits for persons with disabilities, putting him at risk.
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. It states that employers must reasonably accommodate persons with disabilities to reduce the impact of their impairment on their ability to do their work.
Have his employers followed their own code of practice? Of course 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.
The NCPD took the matter up on the paramedic’s behalf but his management ignored us, forcing us to take the legal route. Months down the line, management has backed down: The lifts in the provincial building have been repaired, allowing him to return to his original place of work. Parking is also being made available to him, and the lack of a fire escape is being investigated, as is improving ground-floor access.
But the paramedic still faces discrimination and is being penalised by being made to work office hours only. So he will no longer earn overtime for working nights, weekends and public holidays. We have these wonderful tools at our disposal to end discrimination and indignity, but in our hearts, we still harbour unjustifiable prejudice against people with disabilities, and choose to break the law instead.
It doesn’t have to be that way, the NCPD can assist.
It is, after all, the law. However, 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. That is worth doing, and we are the people to help make it a reality.