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According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), disabilities is an umbrella term covering impairments, activity limitations and participation restriction. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure and activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action.

Disability is therefore not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon reflecting the interaction between the features of a person’s body and features of the society in which they live. Overcoming the difficulties faced by people with disabilities requires interventions to remove environmental and social barriers.

In the 2011 census, people were asked if they had mild or severe difficulty in the six functional areas of seeing, hearing, communicating, walking, remembering and self-care (ENSA: 2014). However, Disabled People of South Africa (DPSA) are disputing the figures released by Stats SA. “This is a total fabrication of statistics because it doesn’t look at disability as a social issue”, Siphuka, national spokesperson for DPSA, said to eNCA.com. According to DPSA, the prevalence of disability is almost double the amount (14%) compared to the Stats SA figure of 7.5% he said. Siphuka explained how this possible miscalculation could be devastating. Only 50% of people living with disabilities will be covered by the national budget.

Many factors are responsible for the rising number of people with disabilities and their consequent isolation from mainstream society.

  • Disabilities are caused by violence, especially against women and children; injuries as a result of landmines, psychological trauma and exacerbated by overcrowded and unhealthy living conditions. Disability feeds on poverty, and poverty on disability. It is a vicious circle.
  • Furthermore, people do not have accurate information about disability, including its causes, prevention and treatment. This is because of a high illiteracy rate and poor knowledge about basic social, health and education services.
  • The occurrence of disability is increased by the inadequacy of primary healthcare and genetic counselling services; weak organisational links between social services; the faulty treatment of the injured when accidents occur, as well as the incorrect use of medication.
  • Disability is caused by the misuse and/or abuse of medication as well as the abuse of drugs and other substances. It is also caused by deficiencies in essential foods and vitamins. Disability may also be caused by stress and other psychosocial problems in a changing society.
  • Disabilities are caused by epidemics, accidents and natural disasters; pollution of the physical environment and poisoning by toxic waste and other hazardous substances.
  • Disabilities are caused by industrial, agricultural and transport related accidents and sports injuries.
  • The fact that people with disabilities are marginalised and discriminated against creates an environment in which prevention and treatment are difficult.

I use the term ‘disabled people’ quite deliberately because I subscribe to what’s called the social model of disability, which tells us that we are more disabled by society than by our bodies and our diagnoses.