Blind and disabled people are human too

In South Africa the focus on Humans Rights Day has understandably been on issues of social or political injustice. Not often have the rights of patients and the disabled been brought to the fore.

In international legislation and the South African Constitution, the rights of patients are adequately addressed but more needs to be done to ensure patients are aware of their rights. The WHO Constitution (1946) envisages “…the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being.” In South Africa, a patient’s right to medical care is highlighted in Section 27 of the constitution.  

“It is the activism and mobilisation of HIV patients in South Africa that forced the Department of Health to provide retroviral treatment in State hospitals and this remarkably transformed the patient journey for many HIV patients in South Africa. This also opened a new door to much needed access to medicine for 25% of South Africa’s population. Had it not been for the growing patient voices, many would have suffered unnecessary deaths,” says Claudette Medefindt, Head of Science and Patient Services at Retina South Africa.

She added that the COVID-19 Pandemic highlighted the often tragic results of years of neglect, of underfunding and understaffing of State Health facilities.

“The Government now recognises the need for adequate national health, and is planning to implement a National Health Insurance scheme, with a hybrid mix of expensive private health care and crumbling inadequate State health facilities.

How this will be achieved remains a mystery to most South Africans. Change is needed but the funding implications are mammoth. However the consequences of a failing health care system are even more dire,” said Medefindt.

In reference to patients with visual impairments, Medefindt pointed out that a patient’s journey to see an Ophthalmologist usually starts in a community health clinic where screening is frequently done by nurses who have had very little training in eye care. It may then take weeks to see a General Practitioner at a hospital and many more weeks before referral to an eye specialist.

“Unfortunately people with visual problems face major, often insurmountable obstacles and neglect in the current state health care system. One example is the situation regarding cataract surgery – the most cost effective method of restoring sight to those suffering with this condition – common to our population. Patients face a growing waiting list of 18 months to 2 years.

In addition to this, when national goals were consistently unattained, the national goals, which are set by the International Prevention of Blindness Vision 20/ 20 committee, were simply adjusted downwards. The disabled population fare even worse,” she said.

Although access to employment and “reasonable accommodation “is guaranteed in the Employment Equities Act, the visually disabled are the last to be employed and are often the first to lose their jobs. Unemployment in the disabled community is probably 2 or even 3 times the national average.

In education, the Governments mainstreaming approach to education failed to provide the necessary specialised equipment that partially sighted students need to cope in a classroom. Inappropriate devices are frequently supplied without consultation with low vision experts. Sight impaired students consistently drop out due to being unable to cope and are thus sadly undereducated. This is rarely due to an intellectual inability.

The list of discrimination against the vision impaired is unending.

Retina South Africa implores all decision makers to consider the rights and upliftment of all partially sighted and blind patients on this Human Rights Day, 2021.

“Remember that fully 80% of all sensory information reaching your brain comes from your vision, and education or privilege does not protect you from vision loss.   Close your eyes for just a few seconds and join our world – a lonely world of deprivation and of discrimination,” concluded Medefindt.

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