Disability is the Cinderella of the historically disadvantaged groups targeted by affirmative action (AA) in South Africa. The Employment Equity Act identifies people with disabilities as one of the targets of the act. Government set the numerical goal as 2 per cent – a goal not yet achieved. Within the achievements so far, the trends noted for the general population of working age hold for the disabled population of working age. Proportionately, more disabled men are employed than disabled women, more disabled white people than disabled black people, and more disabled white men in the more senior positions. The focus of the paper is thus on understanding this lag in achieving the numerical quota and how to move forward.
People with disabilities experience significant disadvantage in the area of employment, which, in turn, has significant repercussions on their psychological, social and economic wellbeing. It is, therefore, important to look further at the barriers that hinder the employment of people with disabilities. These include physical accessibility of the environment and information, transport, attitudes of others (e.g. employers and co-workers) and additional costs of managing one’s disability. The factors such as levels of employment, political will, policies and provision of services (eg health, welfare and employment) are those that create more context specific experiences. The lack of skills and basic education were reported by many South African disabled respondents as being a major factor in their status as unemployed. The delivery, nature and structure of the education that one receives is one of the initial formative steps determining one’s socialisation into society. There is a complex interplay between poverty, disability and social assistance programmes which can have a significant impact on the employment of and job seeking by people with disabilities. South Africa is unusual in combining high unemployment rates with good social assistance programmes. There is a strong business, social, psychological and political case in increasing employment of people with disabilities.
The policy of affirmative action is good but we are not meeting the targets. The situation in South Africa is a complex interaction including a number of confounding factors – high unemployment, good social assistance, and people with disabilities with low levels of skills. Pro-active and constructive approaches need to be adopted to ensure that people with disabilities are fully included in the labour market. It is the right and good thing to do, not only for disabled people but for all people.