As the world celebrated International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a leading disability and women’s rights activist, Dr Marlene le Roux, pleads for greater opportunities for the disabled in agriculture. Le Roux contracted polio when she was three months old. Today is she is the co-founder of the Women’s Achievement Network for Disability and chief executive of Artscape, reports Duncan Masiwa.
Marlene, you grew up in a family of farm and factory workers. From your lived experience, what are the main challenges agriculturists with disabilities continue to face?
My granny was a seasonal farm worker. When it was harvesting time, she was part of the team picking grapes. When it was fruit picking time, she was part of the team packing fruit on long tables to dry – all for 50 cents.
Over school holidays, I would go to work with her and sit on the back of the truck. It was always so strange to see how we were picked up like cattle to be squeezed together at the back. It was hard labour for very little money.
My granny was always of the opinion that at least she was doing an honest job. I also witnessed how dignified, respected people would be paid with old sour wine and fall ill after drinking too much of it. That time we referred to the farmer as “die boer” or “baas”.
Your thoughts on how society treats people with disabilities?
I grew up in a very poor community who cared for me deeply. My mother and my granny made sure that I was respected although I was still being called “Marlientjie, die kreupelmeisie” (“Marlientjie, the crippled girl”).
My mother made sure that I attended school. She had a sit-in at the local school when they did not want to accept me. She did not realise that she was an activist and a feminist. On that day she changed my life forever.
Members of the community would carry me on their backs if I had to take a train to my monthly doctors’ visits at Princes Alice Home in Retreat (in the Western Cape). There were no special schools, and my friends would carry my books and help me up the stairs. I was part of the community. They really practiced ubuntu with me.
Government should prioritise inclusive education and make sure that every girl and boy child can attend the local school. The school should be assisted to make it accessible (for disabled learners) and that transport is available for such students. Accessible transport remain a major challenge for learners with disabilities to access education.
I concentrate on education as this basic need is often overlooked. Education also gives persons with disabilities access to tertiary education and bursaries. This leads to jobs opportunities for people with disabilities. This, in turn, gives dignity to persons with disabilities.
My concern is that the basic education ministry is currently not doing enough to mainstream students who are wheelchair users. Special needs schools should still be in existence as deaf, blind and cerebral palsy students need assertive devices to access learning materials. However, interaction should be encouraged between special needs and mainstream schools to enhance social interaction.
Are we doing enough to include agricultural workers with disabilities?
Government should prioritise a fund that employers can access to make the workplace accessible for persons with disabilities. If you give a person with a disability an opportunity, we give you 150% more.
As a country, we concentrate too much on being politically correct and whether the workplace is accessible or not. Just give us the job! Persons with disabilities can do everything if they are given the opportunity. I am an example of it.
I used to be the faster one to pick grapes and pack the long tables with fruit to dry. This, while singing and cracking jokes. Give us equal opportunities and the tools to prove ourselves.
People with disabilities have long been economically marginalised. What measures should be adopted to help people with disabilities make a meaningful contribution to our economy?
Education is key, but more importantly, quality education. Human resources policies should be adapted in order for persons with disabilities to visit their physiotherapist and working hours and conditions should be looked at. Accessible and affordable transport is also key.
Is South Africa supportive to entrepreneurs with disabilities?
I don’t like the word “entrepreneurs” as you need start-up money in the bank and, generally speaking, persons with disabilities are disadvantaged. We need to start penalising government departments and private companies if they do not employ persons with disabilities. We are past the phase of always being on an internship or a meagre grant.