Nothing about us without us

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Nadine McKenzie, co-founder of Unmute Dance Theatre, Marlene le Roux (in wheelchairs) Mpotseng Shuping, and Andile Vellem from Unmute with high school learner Langston Muller (standing with hat), taken at Unmute's Ability Day as part of their schools' outreach performance.

The 7th AfriNEAD Conference and the ArtsAbility Festival took place at Artscape. It ran from 29 November to 3 December, International Day for Persons with Disability.

This is Marlene le Roux’s speech read at the event.


On Sunday, 3 December, the United Nations’ International Day for Persons with Disabilities will hopefully be commemorated around the globe by various governments, cultural groups, academic institutions and NGOs.

But what do this day and its commemorations really mean for people like me, who live with disability on a daily basis, having to deal with ongoing discrimination meted out in the workplace and society at large because we struggle to see, walk, hear or speak, with a constant uphill battle for recognition of our skills and expertise? Is this a day to commemorate for the sole purpose of ticking a box, in order to say that at least on this day we thought of people who live with disability, to soothe our conscience? Or is it possible for this very important day on the world’s calendar to be the start of 365 days of implementing real change to ensure equal rights, and of recognising, being aware of and making every effort to include all persons living with different forms of disability?

Dancers from Dance For All on Unmute's Ability Day outreach performance for high schools.

At this very moment, at the Artscape Theatre – the government institution I am managing with a team of committed and passionate staff – the 7th AfriNEAD Conference and the 9th ArtsAbility Festival for persons with and without disabilities, are in progress alongside each other. These are two major events that showcase not only talent and expertise, but also high-level research on informing government policies on the African continent. This research covers the rights of persons living with disability, and explores how they can truly ensure these that policies are implemented and entrenched by working alongside experts in the field who themselves live with disabilities. The two events will end on Sunday, 3 December, to commemorate International Day/Month for Persons with Disabilities.

Government institutions like the Artscape Theatre Centre are ideally suited to collaborate with government at large and with corporates on how real inclusion of persons living with disabilities can be effected. This ensures that awareness days like the International Day and Month for Persons with Disabilities are not just about ticking a box, but are meaningful and ongoing. In the White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities of March 2016, the South African government commits duty bearers to realising the rights of persons with disabilities. This is done by accelerating the implementation of existing legislation that advocates equality for persons with disabilities; taking calculated action to ensure that their rights as equal persons are upheld; removing discriminatory barriers to access and participation; ensuring that universal design informs access and participation in the planning, budgeting and service delivery value chain of all programmes; recognising the right to self-representation; acknowledging that not all persons with disabilities are alike, and that personal circumstances, gender, age, sexuality, religious and cultural backgrounds, and geographical location require different responses; and embedding the obligations contained in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in legislation, policy and service delivery.

Andile Vellem from Unmute Dance Theatre in Sikhalo Sendodda (The Cry of a Man) by Andile Vellem.

Yet, the lived experience of persons living with disabilities often attests to the contrary. In my own research for my master’s thesis in philosophy (2018) at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, I make reference to Meiring (2016, cited in Le Roux 2022), who states:

[A]ll people have the challenge of sometimes being unable to make meaning of their worlds with words: we all embody this sense of meaning, even when we cannot explain it with words. So even when people with disabilities cannot speak, or are hesitant to speak, they are much more than their disabled bodies; people with disabilities also have this embodied sense of themselves and should be given the right to define for themselves who they want to be. Harnessing this sense of embodiment will entail creating unhurried spaces of dialogue and authentic, nonthreatening engagement that allows for self-expression to inform inclusion. This is critical.

How has Artscape transformed since it adopted its new name after the old days when it was still called the Nico Malan Theatre? Our bold changes of real implementation, informed by the Sustainable Development Goals 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and 10 (Reduced Inequalities), Artscape has utilised a transformative lens to inform its engagement as a public institution. These transitions have resulted in the current positioning of Artscape as an inclusive, transformed and transforming space, especially in relation to the inclusion of people with disabilities and addressing the impact of the historical marginalisation of certain population groups within the South African context.

First, these changes required a shift in mindset, which in turn informed all other changes, such as HR policies. It created an enabling and inclusive environment, culture, duty of care, level of employee wellness, set of values, leadership style and much more. Amid funding challenges, Artscape has dedicated part of its budget to accessible transport for employees with disabilities.

Further to this, we have implemented the following:

  • Lowering bars for wheelchair users
  • A carpet for partially sighted persons to navigate their way around the different theatres
  • The loop system for the hard of hearing to cut out the white noise in the theatres
  • A comfort room for parents with children with disabilities, useful when they need privacy to feed, and for patrons needing to use a body bag
  • Youth development and job creation
  • Internship programme: we hunt for funding partners, with special focus on interns with disabilities
  • Exchange programme, including Ubuntu interns
  • A platform for all people to showcase their abilities

We have also adopted an Inclusive Model of Disability for Social and Economic Inclusion, a proposal that companies and governments all over the world can use to check whether we are on track as a society to mainstream persons with disability, visibility, equity and equality, to ensure that we are a human-inclusive society.

Philasande Majikela from the production Adulting.

With our partners AfriNEAD, the ArtsAbility Festival, the Unmute Dance Company, the Women’s Achievement Network for Disability (WAND) as well as Lief en Leed for Persons with Disability in Mamre on the west coast, we continue to speak truth to power. Lief en Leed aims to build an all-inclusive Centre for Excellence, which will be run by themselves as persons living with disabilities, for persons with and without disability. Our strong call to government, the corporate world and society at large remains one for inclusive and informative institutions that will walk the talk and not just tick boxes, in line with our slogan: “Nothing about us without us”.

Mr President, as a country we must stop paying lip service by having commissions and task teams and Zoom meetings. We need to implement existing policies effectively, and we need it to happen now!

Come and see how we do it. Join us at the 7th AfriNEAD Conference and the ArtsAbility Festival, now in its second day. Both events end on Sunday 3 December at 5:00 pm, on International Day for Persons with Disability. They end with a free concert by one of our other partners, the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM), for the World New Music Days Festival, an annual global celebration of contemporary music that showcases cutting-edge compositions from around the world. The Cape Town Philharmonic will be joined on stage by Burkina Electric and our own Ying-Shan Tseng, a blind soprano studying for a BMus at Stellenbosch University.

There’s a place for people with disabilities within the arts: Exploring how interaction with the performing arts may facilitate the social and economic inclusion of youth with disabilities.

Marlene le Roux, 30 November 2023

  • Photographs: Jeremeo le Cordeur
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