“There is no dignity in poverty and even worse in disabled poverty” 

I was recently one of the unfortunate grant recipients who was left stranded by the government at the beginning of January. When we could swipe to purchase items, but we couldn’t access the cash, if we did, it was not the full amount. In a country where a large majority receives grants, this was a crisis that should have been handled with much more urgency that what I experienced, writes MAKGOSI LETIMILE. 

I am a wheelchair user, currently job hunting, yet again, due to covid and the recession that it unleashed onto this country. I haven’t had any luck with getting employed which is no surprise in a country with our unemployment statistics. When you look at the statistics about employment or retaining of disabled employees, it’s dire. 

While there was a government promise that they will work towards increasing employment of the disabled, whether by legislating or incentivising companies, it hasn’t come to fruition. While this is going on, we have “economists” advocating for the relaxing of labour laws so unemployment might be “curbed”. It’s a very worrying trend, considering how the CCMA is being dismantled, in a country where even with our strong labour laws, we know companies underpay employees. In various sectors, offenders are often given a slap on the wrist, a laughable fine at the most, then life goes on. 

This is a particular concern for me, as a disabled person, who is thought to be a liability to the state and the citizens, which is odd because R1800 covers food for that week that we receive the grant, the rest of the time, we must beg and borrow to survive this economy. I try to keep up with the news about how grants are given to people who say that they plan to serve the less fortunate and the money never reaches those on the ground. It scares and horrifies me that I live in a society where disregard for the less fortunate is so normalised that nobody is enraged about what it means when funds meant for those without don’t reach them and they are further disenfranchised. 

I also did what is usually recommended for the disabled as a survival mechanism and I started my own business. It was going well until we had to tighten our belts once again and pleasure is the last thing on people’s minds. Banks don’t find wellness, health and dignity based businesses and neither does the government, so there was no business rescue I could apply for to keep my little shop going. 

I’m sure I’m not the only one, with loadshedding forcing many other businesses, big or small, to scale down or completely shut operations. It’s unsustainable to operate in a country where you only have electricity for a few hours a day. People are having to sit in their poverty and hear speeches about how the government cares and it’s doing the very best it can, while we don’t see the results. 

And with all the chaos going on, people are trying to save their businesses until another solution is found. Nobody is hiring or looking to hire the disabled who might need reasonable accommodation in order to be more productive or be given the chance to learn something new and hopefully something that will take them off the poverty list, while making sure that the age for eligibility is abided to. So anybody over the age of 35 is written off and good luck to them, sorry they were not informed in time that their opportunity to earn a living or learn a skill was limited. 

Disabled people are left to others to care for them. Friends and community are now obliged to chip in to make sure that we don’t starve to death, due to finances and neglect. It wasn’t so long ago when we had disability awareness month. Everybody was sending slogans and motivational quotes about how “disability is not an inability” and the many variations of the phrase. Without a sense of irony that if you were to ask for the disabled employee stats, particularly for wheelchair users, it will be an embarrassingly low number.

This is not because there are not enough disabled people to hire, train and pay fairly. It’s because nobody wants to work with the disabled. Unfortunately having lived through an airborne virus that is still continuing, with unknown and mostly under reported effects of what the long term effects of it are, many more people are going to be needing their employers to be more empathetic and understanding of the want and will to work that one might have. That doesn’t mean not earning a living should be seen as a fair compromise for working through a pandemic and becoming disabled. 

I have written many times about how I have struggled to find work, not due to lack of skills but what I partially believe is ableism which can’t always be openly experienced or clearly defined. I say again, I’m not the exception. My many disabled friends lost their jobs during the 2020/21 covid cycle and we are still looking for employment, while facing a prejudiced and often biased hiring system. 

I wish society understood how their unexamined and unacknowledged bias is playing a big role in how the disabled are treated when applying for jobs or funding. Then maybe we might have a conversation about how to unlearn the behaviours and make diversity, inclusion, and equity a serious action instead of buzzwords that people use with no intention of changing. 

Everybody admits that having fulfilling work increases the quality of life, not only because of the salary one earns but because of the opportunities we get to interact with others, learn new things and make connections. Some of these opportunities can only be found during employment and when you look around your office and not even know or see a disabled person, I think it’s only fair that you ask yourself where the disabled are and who is making sure that they don’t go hungry after the R1800 runs out. 

Change has to be intentional and it’s a constant action that you have to perform until you start seeing a difference. Having a once off disability awareness run with able bodied people cosplaying being disabled and giving out ill-fitting chairs is not part of making a much needed change. 

My ask this year, as I prepare myself to apply for more consultancy and inclusion work,  or any work for that matter, companies make an actual effort to teach themselves and their employees how to unlearn bias. We are still working on seriously criminalising racial discrimination in the country. I hope we don’t have to criminalise ableism before society decides to be involved in eliminating it and we can hopefully work towards being the rainbow nation that we promise ourselves we are. 

The UN says, “nothing about us without us” and I hope this year brings us closer to being included instead of being delegated to the usual footnote at the end of the function. 

Hire us, train us, pay us, there is no dignity in poverty and even worse in disabled poverty. 

Featured image via Creative Commons

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.

Makgosi Letimile is an inclusivity advisor & consultant, disabled writer and sex worker and reluctant activist.