By Shamila Surjoo
Now in its 75th year, KwaZulu-Natal Blind and Deaf Society has undergone several paradigm shifts and regular intensification of its aims and objectives. This comes after growth in knowledge, new international perspectives on disability (such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) and changes in South African legislation, notably the Constitution, Bill of Rights and the Employment Equity Act, which for the first time entrenched the rights of persons with disabilities.
Today, the legal impact of personal rights, including compulsory education, employment targets for persons with disabilities and their right to equality in law, services and access to the benefits of our democracy have transformed the Society into an education, rehabilitation, skills development and training provider. The Society is presently capable of enabling, empowering and advocating for all its clients, young, old or multi-disabled.
The vision of our founders set the goals, and with shifting targets throughout the seven decades, those who followed built on the foundations to raise the value of the Society as a premier service institution for blind, deaf and deafblind persons in the province. Not only does it own its headquarters in Durban and a Rehabilitation Centre in Pietermaritzburg, it also owns two leading schools, in Durban (V.N. Naik School for the Deaf) and in Pietermaritzburg (Arthur Blaxall School for the Blind). In addition, the Society established the Durban School for the Hearing Impaired - housed on State property in Amanzimtoti. Through these institutions, hundreds pass each year equipped for tertiary education, the world of work, fitted to live independent and dignified lives.
Society’s growth may be measured by the range and variety of its services:
Rehabilitation and Development Services being one of its main focus areas– channelling access to resources, such as health, education, skills development and economic development. The Rehabilitation and Development Services further encompasses independence skills training (skills of daily living and orientation and mobility), job placement and early childhood development through a multi disabled support programme.
Skills training for adults are provided by Optima College KwaZulu-Natal at its two campuses- Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Courses include telephony training, CCTV surveillance for deaf students, reflexology, call centre training, Braille and South African Sign Language training. The Adult Basic Education project has a wider reach through the Society’s training and supervision of Kha Ri Gude and Masifundisane National and Provincial projects. In addition, interpreter and communication services are provided to public service providers such as clinics, police stations and hospitals.
The Pietermaritzburg Rehabilitation Centre has established a successful hydroponics farming project which is both a funding instrument and a training facility in plant husbandry, business and agricultural management. The project runs in tandem with the services of a protected workshop for clients in Pietermaritzburg. The Society recognises that skills development is an important means to empower persons with disabilities and has implemented many skills development programmes and currently offers training in basket weaving and beadwork. In addition to the audiology facilities provided at the V.N. Naik School and the Durban School for the Hearing Impaired, a fully fledged audiology and Eye Clinic are being established at its headquarters in Durban to coincide with the Society’s 75th anniversary .
The Advocacy Committee of the Society represents the needs and rights of disabled commuters, clients and employees. The Employment Equity Act, as it enshrines the rights of blind and deaf employees, and the Bill of Rights are used in the protection and representation of clients who are being disadvantaged at the work place.
It has been a long, but fruitful journey for members of the Society - from being part of the Natal Bantu Society formed by Mrs Constance Cawston and then revived by the Reverend Paul Sykes and then led ably by Mr. Kunnabiran Pillay - an inspired visionary who laid the foundation of a unique institution. Fortunately, the commitment of Mr. Cassim Bassa, who followed him, saw the establishment of a mobile eye care clinic and blindness prevention campaigns throughout the province. During his leadership the schools were established as fully fledged centres of excellence and became trendsetters for the education of blind and deaf persons. Chairmen who followed Mr. Bassa were – Mr. J. Kissoon Singh and his son Mr. A. Kisson Singh - both lawyers and Mr. R.R. Pillay who added value through his experience in education of deaf persons. Presently, Mr. K. R. Sitaram has experience in education, rehabilitation, welfare services and old age and child care.
The Society has provided South Africa with exceptional leadership from among its students who have transcended barriers, to achieve the highest distinction in academic standards and in quality of services. Among them are Justice Zak Yacoob of the S.A. Constitutional Court, Praveena Sukraj-Ely of the Justice Department, Siva Moodley of the Disability Unit at UNISA - who all hold doctoral degrees. Mr. Jace Nair who is presently the first person of colour to head the South African National Council for the Blind, and Mr. Bruno Druchen who heads DeafSA.
The KwaZulu-Natal Blind and Deaf Society has travelled the long road through penury and despair to success and distinction. It has located itself among the best practice institutions in the Republic of South Africa.