By Kotie Geldenhuys
When a disabled 52-year-old former soldier's wife died a couple of years ago, his 26-year-old brother-in-law moved into his house to take care of him. When the young man, let's call him John, wanted to go out, he simply locked up the former soldier, let's call him Pete, in his home, sometimes for long periods of time. In May 2016, John again went out, leaving Pete alone at home. On his return to the Coldrigde home in Vryburg, John found wheelchair-bound Pete eating his own faeces. John beat Pete with a sjambok until he died. At the time of his death, Pete had both old and new wounds as a result of being beaten over a period of time. According to neighbours, John had always hit the disabled Pete with a panga, hose pipe or sjambok because he said that he did not want Pete to dirty himself with his own faeces and drink his own urine. The matter was apparently once reported to the police but they only gave John a warning and no case was opened (Tshehle, 2016). This incident paints the grim picture of the abuse many people living with a disability face regularly.
Violence against people living with a disability is disturbing and affects people all over the world, no matter their race, age or sex. They are the voiceless and invisible members of society, who are often regarded as defenceless and unable to fight back. They are vulnerable to all sorts of abuse which is exacerbated by a criminal justice system which often fails them due to a general perception that people living with a disability cannot be regarded as reliable witnesses. Sadly, perpetrators take advantage of this situation as they know that a silent victim is the "best" victim.
According to the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP), the national disability prevalence rate in South Africa is 7.5%. Disability is more prevalent among females and it increases with age. More than half (53.2%) of people older than 85 years is reported to be living with a disability. Disability includes visual difficulties, cognitive difficulties (which refers to the ability to remember/ concentrate), hearing difficulties and self-care or walking difficulties. Persons with severe disabilities experience difficulty in accessing education and employment opportunities. Some people living with a mental disability can do little or nothing for themselves and are totally dependent on the care of others. One cannot help to think about the Life Esidimeni tragedy where at least 144 people died due to negligence and starvation after the Gauteng Health Department had moved these vulnerable patients from Life Esidimeni and other facilities, to various ill-equipped unlicensed NGOs.
People living with disabilities largely remain marginalised due to stereotyping, traditional beliefs and ignorance. The World Health Organisation (WHO) (2011) estimates that 10% of the world's population consists of people living with disabilities, with the majority of these people living in developing countries. Causes of disability range from accidents and violence to natural birth defects, but in developing countries, a lack of proper health facilities, inadequate treatment and the lack of knowledge exacerbate this problem (www.who.int/disabilities/world_report/2011/report.pdf).
Vulnerable to abuse
Grainger (2016) notes that experts conservatively estimate that people living with disabilities are at least four times more likely to be victims of abuse and crime than people living without disabilities. People living with disabilities, like other marginalised groups, are particularly vulnerable to violence and abuse in the home or in public places. Bornman (2014) adds that children and adults living with disabilities, especially those with little or no functional speech (which often accompanies mental disability) have an increased risk.
Although violence against men living with disabilities has not been studied as extensively as that of women and children living with disabilities, it has been shown to be a serious problem. Powers et al (2009) argue that in one study involving physical abuse, the male to female victim ratio was found to be 56% to 44%. This United States-based study of 345 men living with physical or intellectual disability showed that 65% of the participants reported a lifetime of abuse, while 24% reported a lifetime of sexual abuse. Men living with disabilities share many similarities with women with disabilities regarding the type of abuse and the impact thereof, although gender-role expectation discourages men from acknowledging the abuse, as a stereotypic view exists that men cannot be abused (Powers et al, 2009).
International studies have estimated that more than 70% of women living with a wide variety of disabilities have been violently assaulted at some point in their lives (Farrar, 1995). Women living with disabilities, who are experiencing gender-based violence, receive inadequate support from the relevant support systems, as well as poor access to the criminal justice system (Centre for Disability, Law and Policy and the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit, 2012).