Shape ‘inclusive new economy’ with these citizens in mind

07 May 2020 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Adobe Stock. Read time 8 min.
An inclusive new economy must prioritise people with disabilities.
An inclusive new economy must prioritise people with disabilities.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa detailed a R500 billion relief package for the nation under threat of COVID-19, he also said that government would take the opportunity to build an inclusive new economy. Riding on this are the hopes of thousands of citizens with disabilities – 7.5% of the population.

It’s an opportunity that the country cannot afford to miss, said Professor Theresa Lorenzo of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Division of Disability Studies and co-lead of Inclusive Practices Africa (IPA), a new UCT research grouping.

The “new global reality” is that millions more people are unemployed, jobs and livelihoods are being lost, and poverty lines are becoming starker. In this economic melee, there’s a danger that the rights of those with disabilities will become subsumed.

“The majority of persons with disabilities are part of our vulnerable population as a result of chronic poverty and living in rural communities, especially those with spinal cord injuries and psycho-social disabilities. So, an active, engaged and coordinated response that is disability inclusive is needed now and in the long term,” said Lorenzo.

She was voicing the joint concerns of colleagues Professor Harsha Kathard (Division of Communication Sciences and Disorders) and Professor Roshan Galvaan (Division of Occupational Therapy), who are also co-leads of IPA, as well as fellow IPA member Thulani Tshabalala, chief executive of the South African Disability Development Trust.

Foster disability inclusion

The IPA focuses on reducing inequality, especially related to disability. The group is currently implementing practices to foster disability inclusion in all sectors of the country’s economy.

“Our signature project is transforming curricula through a decolonial approach and developing an inclusive learning environment and workforce, particularly in the COVID-19 context,” Lorenzo said. “This approach includes training and support to community-based workers who are able to ensure the continuity of care for children, women and youth with disabilities, as well as access resources and information about social and economic opportunities.”


“Disability inclusion means … more than a health or social development response.”

As such, disability inclusion as part of the economic transformation Ramaphosa envisions, means more than a health or social development response. It must include radical systems thinking to generate changes that are sustainable long after the COVID-19 crisis, Kathard added.

“All social and economic strategies must be inclusive and consider all marginalised populations, particularly those with disabilities. Inclusive implementation is also critical and will require aggressive leadership to sustain the transformation effort.”

Inclusive development ‘how to’

The IPA’s guide has been the livelihoods section of the World Health Organization’s 2010 conceptual framework for community-based inclusive development. This section encompasses five elements.

The first is skills development, which begins with the transition from early childhood development through basic and secondary education, with increased attention to post-school learning and more opportunities to access higher education through equitable, universal access support.

This support continues into the marketplace with inclusive staff recruitment and retention.

“The level of education among children and youth with disabilities is generally lower than it is for able-bodied youth, which makes transition from school to further training or higher education difficult,” Tshabalala said.


“The level of education among children and youth with disabilities is generally lower than it is for able-bodied youth.”

“We need to design and offer accredited short programmes for disabled youth – and women who are often the sole breadwinners – on business development and skills transfer; training on governance for NGOs or businesses, which develops capacity for compliance and running shareholder meetings; and monitoring and evaluating their participation in economic development opportunities.”

Further to areas identified for economic development above, he said that bursaries to train disabled people through postgraduate disability studies, master’s and PhDs at UCT will further address economic and social inclusion of disabled people.

“The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development pledges that ‘no one will be left behind’. The few disabled graduates of UCT’s Disability Studies are leading as disability experts in different sectors of society to achieve disability inclusion.”

Develop disability experts, skills

To effect this, disability experts, community health workers, nurses and therapy professionals must develop their knowledge and skills in processes of community development so that they’re able to tackle poverty and promote social justice.

Second is formal employment. Here a more robust approach to a disability-inclusive work environment is key and must see disability as a part of identity, together with race, class and gender.

Business has a large role to play in providing this support. Here, Lorenzo favours an action-learning approach based on developing exchange programmes, information workshops and research projects on business development.

Tshabalala affirmed this approach.

“Organise for groups of disabled women and youth to visit or job shadow progressive businesses to learn and be inspired; for example, how to upscale their small initiatives and be exposed to important networks.”


The third element is informal employment and entrepreneurship. Here UCT has a role to play in designing inclusive mentoring programmes. This initiative could involve the Faculty of Commerce and the Graduate School of Business to help disabled women and youth develop their business and financial management skills.


“We need an inclusive approach to wealth and land distribution, together with targeted poverty and inequality strategies.”

The fourth element is financial assistance.

“We need an inclusive approach to wealth and land distribution, together with targeted poverty and inequality strategies across all sectors, in such a way that disabled women and youth are prioritised,” said Kathard.

Social protection is the last element. While social grants play a vital role in relieving hunger and providing some assistive devices and technology, research with disabled women showed that they also use their grants as seed money to start small businesses or become informal traders.

Lorenzo added, “So, a skills development grant to meet disabled youth and women’s aspirations to be employed would contribute to their economic inclusion.”

The environmental factors that influence participation in economic opportunities must also be considered, she said. These range from products and technology for connectivity, to the natural environment and societal attitudes.

Products and technology include assistive devices such as wheelchairs or hearing aids and computer software packages.

The natural environment must consider terrain of rural communities and informal settlements for those with mobility impairments. It includes climate change and seasonal changes, both related to food security.

Relationships and attitudes

Relationships within families are also crucial.

“Our research with disabled youth found that those whose families support their efforts to access training opportunities do much better,” said Lorenzo. “In families where the disabled person is not able to work because of their impairment, a family member needs to be given opportunities for skills development and obtaining some form of decent work.”


“Our research with disabled youth found that those whose families support their efforts to access training opportunities do much better.”

Societal attitudes can also shape success. For example, the attitudes of taxi and bus drivers, employers and fellow employees, can be major barriers.

Public transport and other services, systems and policies also play a key role. It’s not enough to have an operational system, said Lorenzo, it must be accessible and affordable for people with disabilities.

She noted that those with mobility impairments who use wheelchairs are charged double fares by taxis as their wheelchairs take up extra space.

“Often it’s out of ignorance or fear of not knowing how to support the person with a disability that discrimination arises. So, awareness-raising, support and mentoring of these stakeholders are critical.”

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