The 21st of March is World Down Syndrome Day. The rights of people with Down syndrome have long since been violated. Due to their intellectual disability, such individuals are seen as “second class citizens” without agency or autonomy. Underestimated and chronically disadvantaged, people with Down syndrome remain socially excluded and unable to uplift themselves. Their capacity to contribute to society is thought to be negligible and they are viewed as unable to become educated, unable to live independently and to enter into the labour market. The latter of the three is particularly concerning as it is through the right to work that entitlements such as the rights to dignity and equality can be realised.
According to Down Syndrome SA, most people with Down syndrome fall into the mild to moderate category of intellectual disability, meaning that despite the challenges they may face, they are still perfectly capable of functioning in a myriad of different work environments. This organisation also cites employment as a component greatly beneficial to the outcomes of such individuals. It is for these reasons that barriers to the right to work constitute such an extreme limitation of their fundamental and rudimentary human rights.
A hallmark of the right to dignity is a sense of self-esteem. Realisation of the right to work provides an individual with this because it creates a sense of empowerment. The social stigma surrounding Down syndrome pervades into the mind of potential employers, automatically disqualifying people so-situated from entering into the labour market at all. Thus, many people with Down syndrome simply have never had a job, resulting in low self-esteem and unhappiness, which can lead to further adverse outcomes such as depression. People with Down syndrome often find themselves caught in poverty traps. Unable to get work, there is no means of transcending these. This has a negative impact on their families and caregivers with the effect that relationships deteriorate and such individuals become isolated; their sense of esteem further diminished.
The right to be equal before the law is characterised by the absence of discrimination. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa lists grounds upon which discrimination is expressly and strictly prohibited. One of these grounds is disability. This is inclusive of environments such as the workplace. According to South African Labour Law- specifically the Employment Equity Act, Labour Relations Act and Basic Conditions of Employment Act- in employing someone and retaining them in their employ, an employer may not unduly prejudice a person on the basis that they have a disability, provided they meet the inherent requirements of the job and provided that any accommodation provided to them is reasonable in nature. This is not merely an ideal to which employers must aspire, it is a legal imperative with which they must comply.
A difficulty precluding people with Down syndrome from obtaining gainful employment is a woeful lack of education and training. Absence of requisite qualifications can automatically disqualify such individuals from securing employment. Education too is intrinsically linked to the rights to dignity and equality as enshrined the Constitution. People with Down syndrome have the capacity to develop considerable skills when educated in the right environment and this can stand them in good stead in securing employment. Should this not be provided, however, such individuals cannot become work-ready and cannot be expected to successfully function in the work environment.
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 such individuals to employment. On this World Down’s Syndrome Day, SAFMH calls upon employers, prospective employers and other stakeholders to ensure that the right of people with Down syndrome to work is upheld and that proactive steps are taken to facilitate the realisation of this right. Mental Health Societies, Government Departments and other stakeholders are encouraged to educate people who, themselves, have this disability, as well as their families and caretakers, surrounding their right to employment.
People with Down syndrome have been chronically marginalised throughout the years. Constitutional Democracy exists to dispel this practice and ensure that the rights of such individuals come to fruition. Commemorative occasions such as World Down Syndrome play an important role in advocating for the rights of people so situated but one day isn’t enough to make the necessary systemic changes such individuals require. It is, however, a starting point for catalysing change and its importance, therefore, cannot be overestimated. #takeyourplace
Project Leader: Information and Awareness
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