Disabled people have been increasingly recognised as the most marginalised group in any society. This group faces various structural, political and systemic barriers hindering their access, participation and contribution in the economy. Positioned in the margins, ignored and left behind, they remain easily sidelined even when they are crucial in eradicating poverty and building inclusive economies (Hanass-Hancock & McKenzie 2017; Hanass-Hancock et al. 2017).
As a result, disabled people continue facing both landlessness and disability-driven economic vulnerabilities. This vulnerability is a consequence of political, systemic and structural forces that vehemently exclude disabled people. The vulnerability also suggests an understanding that, without putting the needs of disabled people in the forefront, there is a high risk of maintaining the disability-poverty relationship even if this was not intentional and even in cases where the intention was to alleviate poverty.
A disability-poverty relationship means that disability increases the risk of poverty through a lack of opportunities and access while poverty similarly increases the risk of disability through poor access to services (health and education), safe water, risky environments, work conditions and food insecurity (Duncan, Sherry, Watson & Booi 2012).
A possible consequence of such a viewpoint is found in the UN Monitoring Report (UN 2011:7) stating that “a growing body of research now shows that the most pressing issue faced by millions of people with disabilities worldwide is not their disability, but rather poverty. Much of this poverty is the direct and indirect result of exclusion and marginalisation of persons with disabilities due to stigma and prejudice about disability”.
While disabled people face being left behind in the dawn of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we have ample opportunity to be inclusive in the emerging land redistribution strategies. We need to acknowledge the exclusion and landlessness as disabling conditions that are linked to the persisting economic vulnerabilities, if we are to be fully driven by the commitment to “leave no one behind” as articulated by the (SDGs).
The theme of leaving no one behind becomes critical in the current call to expropriate land and redistribute. It is especially important as we are making slow progress in counteracting poverty and economic vulnerability of disabled people in a country that bears a large burden of poverty and disability. It is possible that centring disability in the land question could assist in counteracting these vulnerabilities and poverty.
Social protection mechanisms in South Africa are one of the potential ways we can address the diverse vulnerabilities. The country provides fee-free schools, free essential healthcare, housing subsidies, employment equity, tax rebates and different forms of social security (disability grant, grant-in-aid, care dependency grants, child support grants, old age grants and foster care grants) as part of social protection. The disability grant, care dependency grant and grant-in-aid are social protection mechanisms directly targeting disabled people and their households. However, these mechanisms currently do not reach all in need and fail to compensate for any inequalities that may exist as evidenced in many rural areas of South Africa (Hanass-McKenzie 2017; Kidd et al. 2018). This is why Hanass-Hancock and McKenzie (2017:6) suggest that “the core interest of these mechanisms should lie within the equalisation of opportunities through equitable rather than equal social protection mechanisms”.
Disability grants do help poor families to an extent, but these have been criticised for not being sustainable. It may thus be the case that to get sustained development we should also think of access to land as an opportunity to generate sustainable livelihoods as a form of social protection. To counteract vulnerabilities efficiently in South Africa at a practical level, this could happen in the following inclusive terms:
The first focus relates to centring this inclusion of disabled people in land redistribution policies to ensure that certain land is geared towards disabled people and their economic activities. Disabled people can be subsidised to access this land and run entrepreneur businesses of their own choice while also investing in capacitating the business owners in entrepreneurial skills.
The state could add further support by boosting the establishment of the business by working towards being the first market or clientele for these businesses as this is always a challenge for entrepreneurial initiatives whether disabled or not. In this way, disabled people are able to generate sources of income for themselves and their families while the grant serves its true purpose of focusing on the person’s disability-related needs. For instance, Loeb et al. (2008), showed nine years back that the relatively generous disability grant in South Africa did remove the economic (income) differences between households with and without disabled members, but that differences with regard to other elements in a broader conception of poverty have remained.
The second focus relates to mandating businesses leasing out state-owned land to indicate and demonstrate how their businesses will be disability-inclusive and reasonably accommodate disabled people in various levels of their businesses as part of enforcing the implementation of the 2% target of the Employment Equity Act. Studies on disability and poverty confirm substantial gaps in access to economic opportunities, and a systematic pattern of lower levels of living among disabled individuals as compared to non-disabled.
In many societies at different levels of welfare and economic development, there is a persistent pattern of disabled people being poorer and less engaged and less able to participate in society, for example in employment as compared with the non-disabled. It is important that the 2% target is enforced with more commitment by mandating both state and private businesses.
The third and most important focus is related to how we use the land to ensure that we close the food insecurity gap facing disabled people and their families. Without addressing this basic need, the current form of social protection in the form of social security grants will continue to make minimal difference to the actual disability-related needs of disabled people meant to be covered by the grant.
The last prong relates to addressing discriminatory attitudes, practices and other environmental barriers that keep disabled people on the margins of society. Combating poverty equals the reduction of disabling mechanisms. Otherwise, we risk a situation where we will be celebrating the reduction of poverty in one segment of society while disabled people and other vulnerable groups remain in poverty.
These approaches may make a difference in alleviating the economic vulnerabilities disabled people face. They will also ensure that disabled people participate as citizens in contributing to the economy through equitable and diverse forms of economic opportunities. The key here is the enablement of the participation of disabled people at all levels of society. Such a disability perspective can easily be sidelined in the land question if not specifically incorporated in the design and implementation processes of land redistribution from the beginning. We should avoid making that mistake here.
To address the economic vulnerability of disabled people, there is a need for a commitment to recognise disabled people in the land question as part of expanding South Africa’s social protection mechanisms and mainstreaming disability inclusive developments. Policy makers designing social protection mechanisms must use this opportunity as one way of also targeting reduction of economic vulnerability of disabled people.
This is also an opportunity to shift our problematic thinking which often regards disabled people as a separate group from the general population with responsibilities pertaining to disability relegated to one sector of government instead of effectively mainstreaming across government. If this land redistribution is to respond to all its rightful citizens, including the diverse needs and rights of disabled people, we need to think of a disability-inclusive economy from the inception stages of the land redistribution proposals and move away from thinking inclusiveness only at later stages. If we do this, we will not later be talking about exclusionary economies specifically with regard to disabled people.
This piece was originally published on the Daily Maverick website and was written by Lieketseng Ned.