Nelson Mandela Foundation

On 17 August 2022, the Nelson Mandela Foundation hosted a dialogue on “Bridging the Gap” between education and labour for young people with disabilities in partnership with the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA). Eradicating poverty and inequity has been a key focus area for the Foundation for many years and exploring issues of education and labour is a new area of work that has been adopted as part of this year’s Dialogue and Advocacy Fellowship.

The timing of this year’s Dialogue & Advocacy Fellowship couldn’t be more spot on as South Africa’s rate of employment, particularly for its young people, leaves much to be desired. The situation is even worse for young people with disabilities. At present, 63,9% of young people aged between the ages of 15-24 in South Africa are unemployed. This number is almost double the national unemployment rate of 34,5% and more than four times the global average of 13,6%. In 2014, Statistics South Africa reported an estimated disability prevalence of 7,5% in the country with employees with disabilities only accounting for 1% of the national workforce. Though it came more than 8 years ago, this statistic is the most widely cited figure encapsulating the extent to which persons with disabilities are excluded from the labour force and remains the most recent.

The panel discussion comprised the Executive Chairperson of the NYDA, Ms Asanda Luwaca who also delivered the keynote address; Chief Executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Sello Hatang; Head of Social Impact at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, Dr Armand Bam; Commissioner at the South African Human Rights Commission, Bokankatla Joseph Malatji; Collins Ombajo who is the Inclusion and Diversity Officer at the Action Network for the Disabled in Kenya;  Head of Talent and Diversity at the South African Employers’ Forum for Disability, Nontobeko Mdhluli; and Lidia Pretorius, an activist and independent disability and Inclusion consultant.

Ms Luwaca reflected on the work of the NYDA and how they have recently established and adopted a strategy that brings forth and ensures that persons with disabilities are meaningfully engaged and part and parcel of the work the NYDA does in society. Ms Luwaca described how persons with disabilities constitute the world’s largest minority and continue to experience barriers to meaningful participation in society. She highlighted how critical it is for the NYDA as an agency of government to accommodate young people living with disabilities and reaffirmed the commitment of the NYDA to initiate catalytic programs that benefit young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Mr Hatang reflected on how nearly two-thirds of South Africa’s youth are denied their right to work and pursue economic freedom, particularly young people from rural areas who have little to no access to the labour market. Mr Hatang noted how within this subset, there are young people with disabilities who face even greater levels of marginalisation and are subsequently left out of the discourse entirely.

Commissioner Malatji began his contribution by noting that South Africa is obligated to provide inclusive education and afford persons with disabilities employment opportunities on an equal basis with others. Commissioner Malatji noted how education plays a central role in the provision of development opportunities for persons with disabilities globally, and that it forms the primary means by which persons with disabilities can lift themselves out of poverty and be protected from exploitation. The commissioner reflected on the barriers young people with disabilities faced when seeking education compared to their peers without disabilities. Due to the largely segregated nature of South Africa’s education system, learners with disabilities are often confined to so-called “special needs schools”. The situation, while it may ensure that students are equipt with the proper tools and environment necessary for them to thrive in a community of their peers, can lead to young people living with disabilities being stigmatised as less educated or less capable of performing in a common workplace.

The commissioner concluded by restating that the structures and the legislation are present. However, the lack of a proactive, coordinated movement to effect the required change is what is needed. The South African Human Rights Commission as an independent monitoring mechanism seeks to play this role.

Collins Ombajo shared insights from the Innovation to Inclusion project carried out by his organisation in partnership with the Kenyan government’s National Council for Persons with Disability. The project was implemented over three years and generated a career portal that functioned as an all-powered digital space offering job matching and e-learning modules for candidates with disabilities and employers with web-accessibility standards. The programme aimed to increase access, retention and progression of persons with disabilities in employment; give persons with disabilities the confidence to engage with signed-up employers in the full knowledge that the employers were disability-sensitive; increase the independence of persons with disabilities by providing them with a wider understanding of their potential career paths and inform future career decisions; support persons with disabilities in acquiring a broad understanding of how their disability-related access needs can be met by employers; and to help establish a sustainable, long-term solution for supporting employment of persons with disabilities.

Speaking on behalf of South African Employers for Disability, Ms Nontobeko Mdhluli illustrated the role that the private sector can play in catalysing the meaningful integration of persons with disabilities into the workplace. Mdhluli reflected on career progression and how employers can play an active role in the career progression of persons with disabilities. She noted the changes employers could employ to be more accommodating to persons with disabilities such as restructuring the job within reason and implementing changes to the workspace - changes the not only improve the contributions and value of an employee but also produce a healthier, more inclusive work environment that benefits people living with disabilities and many others.

Ms Mdhuli spoke to the importance of a multitude of stakeholders in curating this positive environment. She noted how schools, institutions of higher learning, government, NGOs, and business can play a role in the curation of an environment that is positive and accommodating to all persons seeking employment.

The audience raised critical questions such as the plight faced by many workers who have invisible disabilities, who have learnt that disclosing one’s disabilities in pursuit of reasonable accommodation often only incurs the prejudice of employers and limits one’s prospects of advancement or retention in the workplace. Participants described the fact that many persons with disabilities are graduates who have been barred entry into the workplace due to the attitudes of employers, who fail to recognise their qualifications and capacity and choose to focus on the disability itself.

The dialogue touched on concepts of access to opportunities and emphasised the responsibility we all have. This is critical given the extent to which persons with disabilities continue to be left out of the transformation agenda. While Statistics South Africa estimates a national disability prevalence of 7.5%, employees with disabilities only account for 1% of the national workforce. This is likely a conservative estimate as attitudinal barriers, stemming from the stigma and shame associated with the topic of disability, actively discourage employees from disclosing their disability in the workplace.

The dialogue brought together various stakeholders from different sectors to share their insights on the challenges that prevent persons with disabilities from gaining equitable and meaningful access to employment. The dialogue reminded us of the role we must play in innovating solutions towards the dismantling of both the attitudinal and physical barriers that continue to stigmatise persons with disabilities and deny their rights to meaningfully participate in the South African workforce. Until we remove these barriers and these patterns are shifted significantly, young people with disabilities will continue to be on the periphery of discourse on employment and transformation.