'Nothing About Us Without Us” - Remembering Nelson Mandela and His Commitment to Disability Rights
Over the past few days I, like many all over the world, have been honoring and reflecting upon the life and work of Nelson Mandela. In researching his life, I learned that in 1995 Madiba auctioned off his shoes (pictured above) worn as he walked to freedom from Robben Island Prison, where he had been held for 27 years, to the Cape Town City Hall. Upon his arrival, he delivered an address that articulated his commitment to "peace, democracy, and freedom for all.” He auctioned his shoes to raise money for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the British Shoe Corps. First Steps Appeal, an organization that did research on premature births — a common experience for people with cerebral palsy and other congenital disabilities.
Mandela’s commitment to disability rights was far reaching. The disability rights rallying cry “nothing about us without us” was first used in a disability context in South Africa. South African disability rights activists built off of the momentum of anti-apartheid movement, championed by Mandela, and created cross-disability coalitions to seek equality for South Africans with disabilities. In the 1994 election, South Africans with disabilities voted because “they knew that the policy and practice of apartheid had only served to compound experience of discrimination, indignity and poverty as a result of society’s response to their differentness” (Source).
Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration speech was broadcast in sign language, showing that the new democratic government would value citizens with disabilities. When crafting South Africa’s constitution, Mandela took heed of “Nothing about us without us,” and worked with disabled people’s organizations to ensure that it prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and ability. It further promotes equity by articulating specific measures to address disadvantages faced by disenfranchised groups, including people with disabilities.
"For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” - Nelson Mandela
Thank you, Madiba. Rest in Peace.
To read more about the disability rights movement in South Africa, check out these resources.
“Changing Attitudes: An Overview of Awareness Raising about Disability in South Africa.” by Shelly Barry
“The Disability Rights Movement: it’s development in South Africa.” by Kathryn Jagoe
Disabled Persons of South Africa - the largest disability organization in South Africa
South Africa’s Integrated National Disability Strategy - which articulates how every government agency, department, and office must transform itself to be accessible, inclusive, and equitable towards people with disabilities.