Let’s give ef­fect to laws pro­tect­ing dis­abled in work­place

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

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.

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