Thursday, 26 July 2012 12:14

The plight of South Africa’s disabled youth


26 July 2012 - Being young and poor in South Africa is already tough. Add a disability to that equation and watch the difficulties multiply. Apart from various practical challenges to mobility and accessibility, the prospects disabled youth have for studying and finding work are often bleak.

Thirteen-year-old Llani Groenewald has been in a wheelchair her entire life. She lives in Mitchell’s Plain, a largely coloured township about 32 km from the city of Cape Town, where daily existence is fraught with challenges.

“Where I live, many pavements are in bad shape and there are not a lot of off-ramps. It’s also dangerous so I can’t go places on my own,” she says.

Poverty, drugs, and gangsterism dominate life in this part of the world. In the past six weeks alone, gang shoot-outs have killed 24 residents, including seven children.

Figures by the South African Bureau for Statistics show that only 30% of disabled South Africans have a high school diploma, and three in ten are completely uneducated. The unemployment rate among this group is therefore high. Joblessness plagues over 87% of disabled youths between 20 to 24 years old and 79% between 25 to 29 years old. Compare that with 78% and 60% of non-disabled youths in these two age groups.

Education system at fault
Deaf film-maker Nenio Mbazima is not surprised by the statistics. He blames the education system, which he feels must cater more for disabled children. Referring to hearing impaired youths, in particular, he says that in order for them to finish high school, they need specialized teachers.

“Many schools for the deaf in South Africa employ hearing teachers who don’t know sign language and are using oral methods,” he says. “Imagine having a deaf teacher who uses sign language to teach a class of blind learners. How can they learn?”

No person can carry on with school in an environment that discriminates, he says. Yet, Nenio points out that sending disabled children to special schools is not always beneficial.

“Putting them in their own group instead of mixing them with able-bodied people can be damaging,” he says. “They grow up and finish high school believing that they are different, which results in shyness and low self-esteem.”

According to Nenio, that is why disabled children who don’t require specialized care in their learning environment should go to school with non-disabled children.

“When reaching adulthood, both groups will be used to each other and see each other as equals, colleagues and businesses partners – not as different,” he says.

Money problems
Because of financial issues, many disabled yet academically capable youths do not finish high school and will not go to university, notes Claudia Domingo, a speech therapist at Cape Town’s Astra School. This state facility caters to children with different mental and physical needs.

“Only few parents know how to go about applying for bursary or scholarship for higher education, so many disabled youngsters end up sitting at home,” she says.

Michaela Mycroft can relate to that. The 18 year old is confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy. Although she resides in a more affluent suburb of Cape Town, she is aware of the hardship her poorer peers face.

“A disability is expensive in terms of medical costs. In poorer areas, people just can't afford to support the disabled effectively,” she says.

That is why Mycroft set up the Chaeli Campaign. This organization raises funds to provide thousands of disabled youngsters from poverty-stricken regions across South Africa with assistive devices such as wheelchairs, braces, and walking aids, as well as specialist therapies and food supplements. Last year, the organization had 3000 recipients.

For her work, the teenager received the 2011 International Children’s Peace Prize. This award by Dutch organization KidsRights and the equivalent to the Nobel Peace Prize is handed out annually to a child aged between 12 and 18.

Besides the honour, the Chaeli campaign also received part of the prize money set at €100.000. Together with KidsRights, Michaela will decide which other organizations will get the rest of the funds.

While one can't deny the many difficulties disabled youngsters in South Africa encounter, Michaela and Nenio are the living proof that being physically challenged does not have to hold you back in life.

Source : Radio Netherlands Worldwide

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