'I never thought I would ever be employed': SA must do more to create opportunities for the disabled

03 December 2020 - 12:26
By nonkululeko njilo AND Nonkululeko Njilo
Lebo Mashego, one of more than 100 people with disabilities employed at Lesco.
Image: Nonkululeko Njilo Lebo Mashego, one of more than 100 people with disabilities employed at Lesco.

As the world commemorates international day for people with disabilities on Thursday, SA still has a long way to go when it comes to creating economic opportunities for the disabled.   

“Our progress has been slow in terms of seeing the results, we have been slow in ensuring that our environment is inclusive of all people of SA including those with disability,” said deputy minister in the presidency for women, youth and persons with disabilities Hlengiwe Mkhize.

She was speaking at an event on Wednesday hosted by Johannesburg electrical product manufacturer Lesco, highlighting the importance of the private sector in absorbing more disabled people into the workforce.

“We still have stories of people who start school at the age of 15 or 16 and once they go through special schools, it's almost like they get excluded except for those with money,” she said.

Lesco is one company that heeded the call for economic inclusion of disabled people and embarked on a mission to employ differently-abled individuals who often do not get job opportunities.

The company, which employs more than 100 people, has made a huge difference in the lives of staff.

Lebo Mashego, who was diagnosed with polio at the age of eight, is among them. She broke down in tears while sharing the story of her humble beginnings.

I never thought I would ever be employed.
Lebo Mashego

“Life was really difficult growing up as a disabled person. I never thought I would ever be employed. It was hard because even my family did not understand my frustration.

“The challenges are everywhere, there are still people who think people living with disabilities are not human enough,” she said.      

Mashego joined the company in June 2019 and progressed from being a general worker to playing a supervisory role. “I have developed so many skills. When I got this opportunity, I told myself that I would work very hard because these opportunities do not come by often.”   

Thulani Masemola, who is visually impaired, shared similar sentiments.

“Where I come from, young people have indulged in alcohol and drugs. I thought I should take a different route because I wanted to make something out of myself along the way,” he said.

“I got an opportunity to know about Afrika Tikkun [an organisation that helps to uplift young people] and [they] gave me work experience. I am so grateful for this opportunity because people lost their jobs during the pandemic but I got something.

“This job has also helped me a lot to take care of my disability ... I had a serious eye condition and the people around me did not understand. The job allowed me to see specialist doctors and finance prescribed glasses,” he said.

Like many others, Masemola said he encountered challenges which he “never took to heart”. 

“I am a very optimistic person. I look at challenges as an opportunity to grow,” he said.

Lesco chairperson Sipho Nkosi said the company strived for economic inclusion for all.  

“Employment is for everyone, it is not exclusive to certain people. Inclusivity is what drives us, the country needs to deal with unemployment. We cannot be dependent on government all the time, every man, woman needs to stand up and do something, everyone can make a contribution to this country.” 

The disability sector is not looking for handouts, but opportunities to work and contribute to the economy.
Sipho Nkosi, Lesco chair

He hoped many more companies would follow suit and employ disabled people.

“Just because you are ‘differently abled' does not mean you cannot add value to an organisation. Small adaptations in the workspace are often enough to accommodate disabled staff and enable them to function fully at work. It starts with the corporate will to include them.

“The inclusion may be slow or not enough because maybe we are so used to conventional types of businesses but we have taken a step and everyone can take a step,” said Nkosi.

Mkhize added it was about time disabled people also got a slice of the cake.  

“We must encourage private procurement practices that seek out companies and suppliers owned by or comprised of a workforce of persons with disabilities to really push for a procurement model that empowers this sector,” she added.

“For me, this is an important objective because the disability sector is not looking for handouts, but opportunities to work and contribute to the economy.”