By Dr Jean Elphick

In late March this year I travelled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to speak at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Law School Project on Disability. My talks centered on empowerment and education mechanisms for driving social change and human rights protection. I shared my journey with the Afrika Tikkun Empowerment Programme, from undertaking a harrowing baseline study in 2010 to the delight at hearing the joyful voices of hundreds of self-advocates who have proven that even the most marginalised people can have a voice and stand up for their rights.

Let’s be frank, disability is a human rights issue. Everyone has a right to equality and dignity.

All children have the right to a basic education, and education has widely been acknowledged as the most effective means of creating an inclusive and equal society. However, despite laws that should secure this right, at least half a million children with disabilities are still excluded from our education system.

Afrika Tikkun is a South African NGO based in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Our Empowerment Programme focusses on embedding a culture of inclusion, child safeguarding and an understanding of human rights among the 4,000 children and youth that access Afrika Tikkun community centres each day. Using an empowerment approach to mobilise marginalised groups of people (like families of children with disabilities, children and youth) from the five impoverished communities where Afrika Tikkun works, the Empowerment Programme provides innovative human rights and anti-bias education, it supports the development of peer-led self-advocacy groups and advocacy campaigns, and it provides social support services on an individual basis to those who need it. In addition, it supports over 350 Afrika Tikkun staff to practice inclusion, non-discrimination and child safeguarding in their daily work with young people.

The Programme has two main parts. The first thing that we do is open a file for each family and assess the individual needs of the child concerned, as well as that of the family. For instance, we look for the right schools, medical assessment, assisted devices, rehabilitation, social grants and facilitate access to justice.

The second part of the Programme is to catalyse the development of autonomous peer-led self-help groups that can translate their human rights into action. To date we have five vibrant self-advocacy groups for caregivers of children with disabilities, and a further 20 groups of young people.

My presentations at Harvard were preceded by Afrika Tikkun’s second annual Disability Rights Symposium, held in Johannesburg in mid-March. The Symposium was born out of collaboration between disability rights trailblazer Beit Issie Shapiro in Israel, and the Harvard Law School Project on Disability. Professor Michael Stein, Director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability joined members of five self-advocacy groups for mothers of children with disabilities at the Symposium. Together they discussed their advocacy work, reflected on progress over the past year and planned their collective action for the coming year.

Two months previously our Empowerment Programme sent a representative to the United Nations to submit a report to the High Commission for Human Rights. This is the first time that the voices of Afrika Tikkun’s self-advocacy groups have been amplified to an international level. The report will compel the South African delegation to answer difficult questions surrounding the rights and treatment of children with disabilities- specifically with respect to accessing education and protection from ubiquitous gender-based violence. The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will be engaging with South Africa’s first country report on the status of people with disabilities later this year.

These on-going conversations, and the telling and retelling of stories of advocacy and change, allow us to learn from each other and create an awareness of the need for change. These conversations unite us, whether we are from the streets of Alexandra or the squares of Harvard. These conversations demonstrate that human rights only exist when we work together to make them real.


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