In recent decades, the marginalization of many people with disabilities in society has been recognized as a human rights issue, resulting largely from barriers in the social and physical environment, rather than from the individual’s inability to participate. This transition from a social welfare perspective to a rights-based approach, that is, to focus on improving access to education and skills training, for example, is being reflected in legislation all over the world.
Regionally, the Declaration on Employment and Poverty in Africa1, 2004
commits African Union (AU) members to ensure equal opportunities for disabled persons by implementing the African Decade of Disabled Persons and, to that end, developing policies and national programmes that favour full participation of persons with disabilities and their families in social, political and economic development. The Plan of Action for the implementation of the commitments made in this Declaration prioritizes the targeting and empowering of vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities, through education, skills training and entrepreneurship, among other recommended actions.
The move away from a social welfare or charity approach is reflected in ILO’s
Convention concerning Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment of Disabled
Persons (No. 159) of 1983, now ratified by 78 countries. Convention No. 159
requires member States to develop a national policy concerning vocational
rehabilitation and employment of persons with disabilities based on the principles of equality of opportunity and equal treatment, and to promote community involvement and mainstreaming where possible. South Africa has not ratified ILO Convention No. 159 in 1989, but has made progress in developing rights-based legislation concerning disabled persons with the adoption of the Persons with Disabilities Act of 1996.
In addition, impetus for a rights-based approach and full inclusion of disabled
persons in society has gained momentum worldwide with the decision by the
United Nations (UN) General Assembly to develop a Convention to Protect and
Promote the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities. Representatives of
South Africa took part in the negotiations of the new UN Convention on the
Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was formally adopted on 13 December 2006.
Given the emerging trend towards a rights-based approach to disability issues in South Africa, and the support provided to this by the AU Declaration in the
broader context of Africa, it is timely to examine legal provisions concerning the training and employment of disabled persons and their implementation, and to identify steps which may be needed to improve opportunities for disabled persons seeking to acquire marketable skills, find a decent job or set up a viable business.
A workshop, ‘People with disabilities: Pathways to decent work’, held 19–
21 September 2006 in Pretoria, South Africa, provided an opportunity to
commence such a review. The workshop is linked to two ILO technical
cooperation projects in South Africa. One of these projects, Promoting the
employability and employment of people with disabilities through effective
legislation, funded by the Government of Ireland, seeks to promote training and employment opportunities for disabled people by supporting selected national governments to enhance the effectiveness of existing laws and policies or to develop new laws reflecting a rights-based approach.
The second project, Strategies for skills acquisition and work for persons with
disabilities in Southern Africa, funded by the Government of Flanders, aims to
enhance skills acquisition by disabled persons by identifying effective strategies to provide vocational skills and real work opportunities to youth and adults with disabilities by governments, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Disabled Persons’ Organizations (DPOs) and Community-Based Rehabilitation (CBR) programmes. An exploratory survey on skills acquisition by people with disabilities commissioned by the ILO was conducted in South Africa by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), Disabled People South Africa (DPSA) and the Thabo Mbeki Development Trust for Disabled People (TMDTPD), as part of this project. The findings of the survey were discussed during the workshop.