Mutanga, Oliver (2017). 'Disability and Inequalities in South Africa: Where are we heading?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


It is now 16 years since the first HDCA Conference in Cambridge in 2001. As we gather for the first time in Africa, it is crucial to reflect on the success and challenges regarding addressing unequal social arrangements for people with disabilities.

South Africa has many anti-discriminatory legislative provisions. However, literature reveals that persons with disabilities fare worse on education, health, employment and income measures to name a few (Graham et al., 2014). This is partly because policy provisions regarding disability matters are fragmented and hazy (Mutanga 2017). For example, the National Plan for Higher Education includes students with disabilities as part of ‘non-traditional students’ along with female and black students (Department of Education 2001). Combining disability with gender and race issues seems to have relegated disability issues to the periphery as racial and (recently) gender matters are given priority as a result of apartheid (Howell 2005). There is thus scant literature on persons with disabilities in South Africa. Most studies on ‘non-traditional students’ focus mainly on race (black vs white), gender (female vs male) and location (rural vs urban).

The capability approach has been used to explore disability-related issues. Within the capability perspective, in brief, disability occurs when an individual with impairment is deprived of opportunities and freedoms to do what he or she ‘values to do’ (Mitra, 2006). It results from this definition that disability is the outcome of unequal social arrangements. Sen has been concerned with equality of opportunities that he refers to repeatedly in his writings on the capability approach. For example, he writes: ‘We must take note that a disabled person may not be able to do many things that an able-bodied individual can, with the same bundle of commodities’ (Sen, 1985:7). Mobility equipment or other resources and help required by people with disabilities may soak up a large proportion of income that would otherwise be adequate (Sen, 2009). He further outlines two disadvantages from which people with disabilities might suffer. Firstly, people with disabilities have a conversion handicap i.e. the difficulties in converting their resources or incomes into ‘good living’ because of disability (Sen, 2009:258). Secondly, people with disabilities might suffer an earning handicap as they might need more income to achieve similar functionings as others (for example, having to buy a wheelchair in order to be mobile).

Furthermore, one can argue that people with disabilities face inequities – injustice and unfairness- as a result of social arrangements. Studies often report that disability is both a cause and consequence of unjust social arrangements. On one hand, failure to access social services can lead to disability because of adverse effects on access to health care and proper nutrition. Unjust social arrangements result in unsafe living conditions, poverty and marginalization. On the other hand, disability can lead to inequalities e.g. because of exclusion from participating in education and employment. If everything can be explained by this simple correlation between disability and inequalities, why do we still have inequalities in society? The answer is that the relationship between disability and inequalities is complex, and must be unpacked properly to be well understood. In an effort to understand this relationship, four papers in this panel session will explore the lives of people with disabilities in South Africa using empirical data. All the papers inform policies, practice and research that seek to address social inequalities in South Africa and beyond.

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