When Stephen Hawking passed away recently, the world lost an incredible human being, someone who was able to look past his physical limitations and become one of the great thinkers of our time.
Hawking was diagnosed with a terminal illness at the tender age of 21. Doctors gave him a mere two to three years to live, yet he went on to live for 76 years while positioning himself as one of the most influential men in the worlds of science, mathematics and cosmology.
Progression Disability Expert Justene Smith says Stephen Hawking has shown the world that living with a disability does not take away a person’s ability to have a successful and impactful life. “He certainty challenged the stereotype that people with disabilities are less “able” than their able-bodied counter parts.”
Unfortunately, not enough people share the same view as Hawking. “People with disabilities continue to face discrimination in society and in the workplace every day. Only 1% of South Africa’s workforce is made up of people with disabilities. This is a statistic that we often emphasise and rightly so,” adds Smith.
She says just like Stephen Hawking, many people with disabilities face countless challenges in their lives. “Gaining an education and entering the workplace should not be one of these challenges. Unfortunately, breaking this vicious cycle of disability and discrimination is not easy.
“Firstly, disability discrimination doesn’t start in the labour market, it starts in school. South Africa does not have adequate education facilities nor educators for children with disabilities. Waiting lists for specialised schools increase every year, and those still waiting are getting too old to attend school as there are age limits for admission to schools. KwaZulu-Natal reports 2 769 children with disability on its waiting list. The waiting list in the Eastern Cape is 2 160,” she adds.
Secondly, if people with disabilities attempt to enter the labour market, they are often faced with negatives attitudes. “Overcoming many of these stigmas and stereotypes starts with a simple conversation. One of the best ways to effectively remove the stigma that surrounds disability is to openly discuss this “taboo topic”. It is important to note that disability is part of normal human experience,” says Smith.
“It is important to note that persons with disability are not looking for recognition for having the ability to perform their day-to-day duties. They have simply learnt to live with their disability and adapt to their work environment by using their skills and knowledge. The fact is, persons with disabilities are as capable of completing their tasks as those living without any disabilities,” concludes Smith.
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Never stop working, work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it” – Stephen Hawking