Eye Health

Updated 07 March 2018

Will South Africa EVER offer free services to the disabled?

South Africa has a long way to go before it's able to offer blind and visually impaired citizens a decent quality of life, according to Retina South Africa.

Disabled persons in South Africa are nowhere near having the same opportunities as their able bodied counterparts.

An uphill struggle

This is according to Retina South Africa who highlighted the struggles of the blind and visually impaired as December marks International Month of Disabled Human Rights.

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The patient-run organisation is dedicated to fundraising for a cure for the 150 000 people in South Africa suffering from retinal degenerative disorders such as Retinitis Pigmentosa, Stargardt Dystrophy and Macular Degeneration.

There are approximately 380 000 blind people and over one million people suffering from low vision in South Africa, according to the SA Guide Dogs Association.  

With over 80 organisations working in the sector to get equal opportunities and improve the lives of the blind and vision impaired, the battle is an uphill struggle as the scramble for limited resources continues.

The biggest challenge facing blind/vision impaired persons is lack of jobs and transport.
"Partially sighted citizens of South Africa are often not regarded as disabled and are often excluded from disabled employment initiatives," says Claudette Medefindt Head of Science for Retina South Africa. "They are often underemployed and the first to be retrenched."

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Although the labour law indicates that between 2 and 5% of the workforce must be from the disabled sector, corporations tend to employ physically disabled persons rather than blind/vision impaired persons.  

"Even when these people are employed, the infrastructure and technology are not available to make them compete equally with their sighted colleagues."  

Accessible transport another challenge

Retina South Africa pointed out that there are computer programmes, cell phones and magnifiers available that can assist blind/low vision persons to do the job just as well as anyone else.  

"Programmes such as JAWS and Zoom text, large print keyboards, voice activation software and e-readers are all easily available, but most companies are not interested in supplying reasonable accommodation."

Accessible transport has also been outlined as another challenge.

"It is well documented that our public transport system is ageing and dangerous even for able bodied persons. The government-funded transport systems for disabled persons such as Dial A Ride do not recognise blind/low vision persons as being disabled and when questioned merely said that 'they have a cane and can walk'. How insensitive is this?"

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The only options available is to ask family and friends for transport or enlisting the service of meter cabs which can turn out to be very expensive.  

Extra expenses

"In other countries such as Australia, the government gives free bus/train passes to vision impaired persons as well as taxi vouchers to use where there is no public transport. They are allowed two train passes a year to go away on holiday, not only for themselves but for a companion as well.  

"Furthermore, the Australian government gives them a disability pension even if they have a job, recognising that as a disabled person you have extra expenses and often have to pay others to do everyday things such as cleaning, gardening and shopping. They are also entitled to a carer's allowance, computer equipment, lighting installations and all sorts of other benefits. South Africa has a long way to go to be able to offer this to its disabled citizens."

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The organisation also called for ordinary South Africans to be educated on identifying and assisting blind/vision impaired persons.  

"Most people think that if you have a white cane there is something wrong with your legs! Even people working in shops, airports, hospitals, where you would expect them to be trained to recognise and assist blind/low vision persons have no clue how to do this."

Retina South Africa says that blind/low vision persons want to be part of the fabric of society and want to put their weight behind building a new and better country, but without the basic requirements and access to opportunities, it is obvious that it will take a very, very long time before this becomes a reality.

Also read:

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Image: Low vision access sign from iStock.


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Megan Goodman qualified as an optometrist from the University of Johannesburg. She has recently completed a Masters degree in Clinical Epidemiology at Stellenbosch University. She has a keen interest in ocular pathology and evidence based medicine as well as contact lenses.

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