17 March 2017 - On March 21 1960, the residents of Sharpeville took to the streets in protest of the oppressive laws the Apartheid government imposed on black people. In terms of these laws black people had to carry passes in order to move around the country.
These laws reinforced the notion that being black was bad and that black people were subhuman. The Government of the time retaliated by opening fire on the crowd leading to the deaths of many people that day, all because they stood for their human rights to social inclusion and freedom of movement. It is their courage that we celebrate on March 21st (Human Rights Day).
Today in South Africa, section 9 of the Constitution declares that we are all equal in theory, and this protects all of us from all forms of discrimination. Although we are all declared equal, we treated unequally. As George Orwell wrote, it is a case of “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” still. Separate development is still persisting in institutions of learning, with Students with Disabilities, often not given the same education as their peers. According to Article 24(1) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD):
States Parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to education. With a view to realizing this right without discrimination and on the basis of equal opportunity, States Parties shall ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning directed to: The full development of human potential and sense of dignity and self-worth, and the strengthening of respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and human diversity.
In terms of this article inclusive education is the best vehicle to effective participation and equality in learning, dignity and self-worth and strengthening of human rights. Unfortunately inclusive education has not been realised. This raises the question of what happens to equal opportunities for learning and the dignity and self-worth of Students with Disabilities.
In the spirit of Sharpeville, we at the Disability Rights Unit, Centre for Human Rights in collaboration with the University of Pretoria Disability Unit and Law House, thought it commemorated Human Rights Day, by speaking out for Inclusive education. We chose to host a “chill session”, instead of the usual lecture to create a safe learning environment for all those who participated in the chill session. The Chill session was hosted at the Law Kiosk, a place where law students usually hang out during lunch time. This venue was ideal because it is where students usually are and social inclusion is one of the hurdles the Students with Disabilities face in varsity. The Chill Session was hosted from 12:30 till 13:30 lunch hour.
Maria Ramaahlo, head of the UP disability Unit opened the proceedings by leading the National Anthem in sign language. After which we addressed the “elephant in the room”, disability etiquette: how to interact with persons with disabilities. We had a screening of a video on disability training that taught us how to interact with persons with disabilities. The main message of the video was to address the person and not the disability, because we are all human first. Disability training is important as it helps foster relations between all parties and facilitates in the process of social inclusion.
Ms Maria Ramaahlo addressed the issue of disability parking on campus and how important it is for students to respect such designated areas. Venetia Beytell, a 2nd Year BA languages student, with a visual impairment gave a wonderful performance. The performance was captivating to say the least and she showed that she transcends her visual impairment. Mr William Aseka addressed the audience on what is meant by inclusive education. He highlighted that integration is simply not enough, that to simply have students with disabilities in the same classroom is not enough. However, there must be an effort to accommodate diversity in the classroom, and the must be a provision of assistive devices to enable all to learn at the same level. William and Maria are living proof that you need not have a disability to advocate for disability rights, particularly inclusive education.
Mr Sindile Mhlanga, from Zimbabwe, a teacher for learners who are deaf, taught the audience a few basic signs. This was a very interesting and fun exercise with everyone participating in the lesson. Sindile taught the basic signs, such as how to greet and introduce yourself and he also taught legal signs and with the aid of a video taught signs related to disability. Though he is from Zimbabwe he also taught South Africa signs as well, with Maria assisting where necessary.
Mtunsi Ramabela, deputy chairperson of Beyond Our Limiting Disabilities and BA Law student shared his own experience studying at the University of Pretoria. Mtunsi Ramabela is a student with visual impairment, he said that for him studying at the university went well, as slides have been provided to him and he has been receiving assistance from the Disability Unit as well. Asrar Gebeyehu also shared his own experience studying at Addis Ababa University, as a student with a visual impairment. According to Asrar,Addis Ababa University was better than most universities in Ethiopia as it provided assistive devices to student and also had a Disability Unit. Addis Ababa University provided braille notes to students, however students were expected to bring their own translator devices during exams. Mtunsi and Asrar’s experiences show that though work is being done on some campuses towards achieving inclusive education, others are still far from the goal.
The need to speak out for inclusive education remains and more people must join the conversation so that Article 24 of the CRPD may be realised in our lifetime. Sewela Masie and Maria Ramaahlo closed the proceedings by encouraging students to take up human rights issues and champion them as law students. The sign language training video used by Sindile during his lesson will be made available to students via Law house and Maria promised to make a South African sign language video available as well. The least homage we can ever pay to those who lost their lives on 21 March 1960 in Sharpeville, is to fight for the realisation of all human rights.