An image the world will remember of the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994 is that of thousands of people with disabilities queuing at voting stations across the country under the hot African sun. They came to exercise their right to vote under the most difficult of circumstances.
They came in wheelchairs, on crutches, navigating their way by means of white canes, in wheelbarrows and even physically carried on the backs of relatives and friends.
Why did they come?
They came because they knew that the policy and practice of apartheid had only served to compound their experience of discrimination, indignity and poverty as a result of society’s response to their differentness.
They came to participate in one of the most empowering experiences ever.
They came because they had a vision of a better dispensation under new conditions of liberation and democracy.
In support of their vision was the fact that the Interim Constitution had already outlawed discrimination on the grounds of disability. For the first time, disability was recognized in South Africa as a human rights issue, as opposed to the more traditional approach of health and welfare, a four hundred year old approach which still left disabled South Africans caught in a poverty trap of dependence and disempowerment.
The Bill of Rights as laid out in South Africa’s new constitution, is the cornerstone of democracy in South Africa. It enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom. The quest for the extension of human dignity for all our citizens is an ongoing task of this government.
The BayGen project already embodies so much of what we all want out “new” South Africa to be. Launched in 1995, BayGen represents a marriage of appropriate technology, social responsibility, private enterprise and economic empowerment.
Its first product, the Freeplay Radio with its efficient and simple “wind-up” source of power generation, is a technological breakthrough of potentially great importance to the achievement of socially desirable objectives in terms of distance education and the development of democracy in impoverished rural populations of the developing world.
That BayGen is partially owned by the Disability Employment Concerns Trust, an economic empowerment investment consortium of seven major South African disability NGO’s means that a significant portion of profits earned will become a sustainable long-term source of funding support of the broad range of welfare and development projects and programmes operated by those NGO’s. This will have the effect of lessening the dependence of these organisations on Government and donor financing.
The Disability Employment Concerns model of economic empowerment goes further. No less than one-third of BayGen employees are themselves people with a broad range of disabilities who have been afforded appropriate training in accessible environments such that they are able to compete on an equal footing with their non-disabled fellow-workers.
Why are we here today?
The right to literacy must be considered one of the most unquestionable rights of all people. Literacy is crucial to all aspects of life, public and private. We recognize that literacy is necessary to reach personal goals, to adapt to a changing environment and to achieve a meaningful existence. Literacy among blind people is recognized as a basic human need that opens the door to a better quality of life.
According to the World Health Organization there are approximately 148 million people world-wide with serious visual impairment, of these around 38 million are totally blind. Nine out of 110 people who are blind live in the developing world and less than 10% of the world’s blind people are literate.
This then is the challenge facing those of us committed to empowering blind people to reach out and grasp their full potential.
The quality of life of many thousands of blind south Africans is affected because they cannot read or write in Braille. People who are marginalised or displaced are further disadvantaged by their inability to participate in the dominant forms of literacy. They are disadvantaged in job-seeking, they are unable to participate effectively in training or development programmes and, they are often to support themselves and their families. Poverty, illiteracy and disability constitute an explosive combination.
The effect of a high illiteracy rate is not just that it disadvantages the people involved, there are also disadvantages for wider society. Efforts to bring about a democratic political culture (especially in our own country) and strong organs of civil society are made more difficult it large numbers of people are unable to participate in literate communication.
Lack of literacy skills becomes a social barrier that advantages some people over others. Illiteracy can become a mechanism that identifies a class of people who are cut off from the benefits of effective citizenship, a society that is striving for the democratic participation of all its citizens has to address the fact that many of them might be disadvantaged through being illiterate.
For blind people, literacy hinges on being able to effectively read and write in Braille. Braille , for blind people, is the channel through which they gain access to the world around them. Braille is a universal form of communication for many language and any culture. It is not enough however for a blind person to read Braille, they also need to write it to be truly literate. A Brailler is as essential to a blind man or woman as a pen is to a sighted person.
Every blind person has the right to access written communication. Being able to read and write braille empowers blind people to become active communicators, to receive an education and to have access to employment.
The occasion which we recognize by gathering here today is another of several initiatives whereby all South Africans find themselves challenged by the example of their fellow citizens with disabilities. Today marks the opening of a significant extension to the BayGen operation.
In the developing world, there is a dire lack of even the most basic braille materials and equipment. In the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, blindness compounded by illiteracy results in segregation, loss of dignity and a lack of social, cultural and economic independence.
This is indeed a bleak picture, but hopefully it will not remain so for very much longer. The importance of the growing new partnership between the South African National Council for the Blind and the Perkins School for the Blind in the United States cannot be over-emphasized.
South Africa has become more and more aware of the important role it has to play in assisting its fellow developing countries on the African continent and further afield. Becoming the producer of affordable braillers, South Africa is acknowledging its responsibility to other developing nations and demonstrating its commitment to eliminating illiteracy among all blind people.
Thanks to this pioneering project, a Perkins Brailler produced in South Africa can now be purchased for US$375. When one considers that a Perkins Brailler can last an entire lifetime, and that this basic writer gives a blind person access to an independent, literate, fulfilling life, one realizes that this small investment can unlock an infinite amount of human potential.
The South African Government’s Reconstruction and Development Program has specifically targeted disabled persons, along with women, youth and rural people. We are committed to working with disability organisations to ensure that our country’s disabled people are empowered to achieve independence, be it political, economic or social.
The Disability/BayGen project provides an exemplary model of how to achieve RDP objectives in these terms. This financial stability of NGO’s could be assured if more investment consortia would consider approaching organisations of the disabled to set up similar partnerships.
For me as Deputy President of South Africa it is truly a moment of pride now to declare the Perkins Brailler Project officially open.
We wish you every success in your work in the interest of all people with disabilities who look forward to a life of literacy, dignity happiness and participation in society.