GOVERNMENT officials and other stakeholders have been engaging in a self-congratulatory exercise in the aftermath of the enactment of the long-delayed Persons with Disability Equity Act.
The Act provides for an array of legal rights for persons with disabilities including rights of access to services including health and the provision of quality education.
The Act had been in the works from as far back as 2012 and like so many other vital laws and development-related programmes, its timely enactment was affected by the perennial political instability which has resulted in four short-lived governments from 2012 to date.
Now that the Act has been passed, Social Development Minister, ‘Matebatso Doti, who championed its enactment, is promising a new era for people with disabilities.
Never again will their rights be trampled on. Never again will they fail to access health services or be forced to drop out of school on account of their disabilities, Minister Doti vows.
“With regards to the Ministry of Education and Training, we are pushing them to ensure that sign language and braille are incorporated into the curriculum to ensure that the deaf and the visually impaired can learn without any challenges,” Minister Doti says.
“We also want to ensure that school facilities and construction projects undertaken by the Ministry of Public Works are specifically designed to cater for the needs of persons with disabilities. This means there must be ramps to ensure buildings are easily accessible to people with disabilities.”
While there is no doubting the minister’s sincerity, one cannot help but feel that the government’s new-found zeal may have come a little too late for some people with disabilities.
Ntšepase Mafa of Ha-Malibe in the Quthing district is one such individual who may not be able to benefit from the looming changes to make primary and secondary education more accessible to persons with disabilities in Lesotho.
Ms Mafa is deaf and blind. Apart from this, she is not able to communicate in an intelligible manner and her condition is yet to be properly diagnosed by medical experts.
At 22 years old, she may not be able to retrace her footsteps to school to resume and complete her secondary education without which, she cannot apply to any of the local health facilities or in neighbouring South Africa to fulfil her dream of becoming a nurse.
Ms Mafa was not always deaf and blind. She was born able-bodied. Her relatives say the now orphaned young woman was a charming and vivacious, intelligent girl who excelled at her studies.
“She could do no wrong in the classroom and she was the darling of her teachers and fellow pupils,” says one of her uncles, Kulehile Hae.
Mr Hae said Ms Mafa was gifted and overcame the challenges of being a rural girl to obtain a with Second Class pass in her grade seven examinations at Sebapala Primary School in the Quthing district.
However, her world turned upside down and her ongoing nightmare began a year later in 2013 shortly after she enrolled for grade eight (also known as Form A) at Sebapala High School.
“Her blindness and deafness have held her prisoner for many years now because she has been unable to do the one thing she cherishes most- attending school and completing her secondary education to allow her to pursue her dreams of becoming a nurse.
“Her condition has robbed her of her dreams and of life in general because as we speak, she has to stay at home. She can hardly communicate in an intelligible manner. It is difficult to understand most of what she says except when she is communicating her need for food or the bathroom.
“It is so heartbreaking to hear her say unintelligible things,” Mr Hae says with an air of resignation.
He says Ms Mafa first developed sight problems which eventually degenerated into complete visual impairment despite countless visits to different local health facilities.
Her hearing was also affected and all that the health workers could tell them was that her hearing and sight nerves had been damaged.
The family did not immediately give up on her education, he says. They initially explored means of assistance including sourcing hearing aids from St Johns Primary School in the Mafeteng district. They did this with the help of a special needs teacher, Kacha Ramokoatsi. But the hearing aids were not of any help, Mr Hae said.
On Mr Ramokoatsi’s recommendation, they enrolled Ms Mafa at the Mohloli oa Bophelo Rehabilitation and Training Centre which caters for the blind. But her stay at the centre was cut short as the school said they were incapable of offering her the support she needed to pursue her education.
“It was very sad when she was forced to come back home from the Centre because that was the one place we had hoped would be able to help her. Since then, we have run also out of options and become helpless.
“Staying at home and not being able to do anything has taken a psychological toll on my niece. But I still believe that with professional help and the right support by experts, she could still do something including completing her education and fulfilling her dream to be nurse,” Mr Hae said.
Mr Ramokoatsi, the special needs teacher who attempted to assist Ms Mafa, all those years ago has not given up on her.
“She is an intelligent young woman. From the very first day I met her, I saw great potential in her. She could still resume her studies. She needs a type of communication that is called touch to touch but unfortunately, we do not have that type of expertise in the country.
“She was born in the wrong country because even with her condition, she could still be assisted to get an education elsewhere. The government and other stakeholders need to do more to introduce more specialist services to enable disabled people like Ms Mafa to access education and fulfil their dreams,” Mr Ramokoatsi said.
The government and stakeholders may be exploring ways but like British musician and social commentator, Mick Hucknall, said, “the poor have no time to be thinking that you are busy finding ways”.
It is well and good that the Persons with Disability Equity Act has been passed but concrete actions must happen now and fast. Otherwise, the dreams of people like Ms Mafa will be completely buried and lost like the city of Atlantis, never to be seen again.