In his State of the Nation Address, President Jacob Zuma said, “We would continue to advance and improve the lives of people with disabilities.” Following that I attended a portfolio committee on Social Development on March 18, in which the committee addressed some of the comments made by the president. But I also wanted to take the discussion out of the chambers of parliament, to see for myself what the reality is like for people living with a disability.
I went to the Alta Du Toit Aftercare Centre in Bellville, Cape Town, which cares for people with intellectual disabilities. The residents received me with smiles and all wanted to shake my hand, which was a bit overwhelming at first, but I soon went with the flow.
The centre’s manager George Gordon explained that intellectual disability affects how one thinks and processes information, as well as behaviour, and because of this, he facilitated my chat with the group of young residents, aged aged between 18 and 26. What I found from interviewing them was that despite our obvious physical differences and communication barriers, we had some things in common.
Nervous giggles filled the room as I sat with the young people, and often they needed a bit of prompting from George to answer my questions. When I asked what they aspired to be, I received a variety of answers. Sonwabo Mayenda said he would love to be a doctor. Dane Jacobs said he wanted to work with computers; Ashley Boberg picked being a pilot while Lilly Barchietto had no idea, which I can related to.
Disabled people also fall in love, like Sonwabo and Arnold Cillié, who both have girlfriends who live in the centre. Arnold said he longed to attend the gym so he could get a six-pack to impress his woman. They told me they loved music, with some mentioning Afrikaans singer Karlien van Jaarsveld as a favourite artist.
Ashley and Dane said they enjoyed chilling with friends and watching soapies like Days of Our Lives, The Bold and the Beautiful and 7de Laan. Dane also spends many hours on his cellphone texting and playing games. Sound familiar?
George said lots has been done by the government in terms of giving them funding and resources. But he said he wanted to see more commitment from communities. “In some communities many young people have intellectual disabilities, but are kept at home and not taken to centres such as this, where they will be able to interact with others just like them.” He says alienating them deprives them of specialised care.
My experience at the home was also bittersweet. For the people that live at there, that’s where life is likely to begin and end, while I have greater access to see more things and travel outside of my home. A story that George shared about one of the resident’s stuck with me. He told me about a former policewoman who now lives there after an accident, and how she sometimes has flashback to her old life and often asks why she is there and not working and living as she did before. It made me remember that disability can happen to anyone.
Going to the centre changed many of my preconceptions. I learned also, to my delight, that we all wonder about the same things: When I told the group that Livemag wrote about parliament, Ashley wanted to know whether I had met Jacob Zuma, and asked, gesturing with his hands, whether it was true that the president has a big head – and we all burst out laughing.
Images supplied by the Alta du Toit Aftercare Centre
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