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March 12, 2018


The Bill of Rights, enabling legislation and international law seek to create a conducive environment for people with disabilities. The mainstreaming of people with disabilities into the workplace is enshrined in the International Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities with the right to work contained in the International Covenant of Social, Economic and Cultural Rights. South Africa has ratified both of these treaties, the former in 2007 and the latter in 2015. South Africa’s Constitution entered into force in 1996, the Labour Relations Act in 1995 the Employment Equity Act in 1998, and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act in 2000. All of these pieces of legislation provide for employment equity, fair labour practices, non-discrimination and reasonable accommodation of people with disabilities.

Overall, as illustrated, an extremely cohesive framework exists to protect the rights of people with disabilities. This, however, is not reflective of reality. According to the 16th Commission for Employment Equity, only 1.2% of the workforce are people with disabilities in comparison with the target of 2%. This figure is unacceptably low and represents a failure on the part of duty-bearers to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of people with disabilities in the workplace. One group that is chronically excluded from the open labour market is people with intellectual disabilities.

Exclusion of people with intellectual disabilities from the workforce violates their basic rights and entitlements- most of all their right to inherent dignity- one of the rights from which all others flow and which constitutes a non-derogable legal guarantee. A further important right violated is the right to non-discrimination- with discrimination on the basis of disability being an explicit prohibited ground set forth in the Constitution.

The month of March is Intellectual Disability Awareness month. It offers the opportunity to reflect on hopes and hindrances of people so-situated. While progress has been made to facilitate the inclusion of this demographic, there are many avenues down which South African society has yet to truly venture and the issue of employment of people with intellectual disabilities constitutes one of them. There are a spectrum of reasons as to why many otherwise-employable people with intellectual disabilities remain out of work. These include discriminatory attitudes and practises by employers, ignorance in society, lack of enabling mechanisms to promote employment opportunities and others. Work-readiness is a massive challenge with a stark lack of educational opportunities available to people with intellectual disabilities upon leaving school. Notwithstanding these difficulties- and if given the chance- people with intellectual disabilities can make an extremely positive contribution to the workplace, taking pride in their work and becoming assets to an organisation.

The South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) is a non-governmental organisation seeking to advocate for and uphold the rights of people with psychosocial disabilities and people with intellectual disabilities. This year, the organisation will be raising awareness about the right of people with intellectual disabilities to employment. The organisation has developed educational material- specifically a DVD divided into two sections; one for employers and one for employees. The former can be found at and the latter at During Intellectual Disability Awareness Month SAFMH calls upon employers, prospective employers and other stakeholders to ensure that the right of people with intellectual disabilities to decent work is upheld and that proactive steps are taken to facilitate the realisation of this right.

The construct of transformative constitutionalism denotes the improvement of socio-economic conditions in a country and catalysing substantive equality. In our democratic dispensation this extends to all people in the Republic, including and especially society’s most vulnerable. While this is certainly required to bring about positive change for people with intellectual disabilities, such people don’t always have to be seen as vulnerable- in fulfilling their roles in the workplace they can also be capable and worthy of recognition. Provide them with this chance #takeyourplace.

Last modified on March 16, 2018