67th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference

Connecting Disability Rights and Accessibility in South Africa and the UK

This blog represents a tiny thread in a story of disability rights that connects South Africa to the United Kingdom. It is part of a far more important tapestry connecting South Africa and the United Kingdom, and the family of Commonwealth countries.
Amanda Gibberd is the Director of Universal Design and Universal Access (UDA) at the South African Department of Transport.

On 25 and 26 April 2024, the Department of Transport in South Africa achieved a milestone. The Department hosted a Transport Summit on Universal Accessibility, inviting the President of South Africa, Hon. Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa, who kindly accepted the invitation, and gave a keynote speech.

Above: The South African President, His Excellency Cyril Ramaphosa spoke at the National Transport Summit on Universal Accessibility (UA). Image credit: South Africa Department of Transport.


The Summit’s purpose was to commit the Department of Transport to implement an Action Plan, ‘Accessible Transport for All’, because the South African Constitution is progressively unusual by including disability equality in the same way as race and gender. The Constitution commits to freedom of movement, which without universally accessible transport, cannot be achieved. The Department of Transport has championed equal access to transport since 1999 and drafted an Accessible Transport Strategy 2009, which won a Zero Project (www.zeropgroject.org) in 2018.

If the South African Constitution is to mean anything in real life, Departmental legislation written to reflect it must be implemented. The Department of Transport has been able to show the President that it has done so, perhaps not as fast as it should have, but enough for the President to be able to state in his Summit speech that universal accessibility is now a minimum requirement. He also stated:

“The goal of a universally accessible national transport system is not only within reach. It is also a vital part of our efforts to build a South Africa that truly belongs to all who live in it.”

I’d like to share some of the history of how this goal became within reach, and the different threads of a story which began over 60 years ago.

On 20 April 1964, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela made a speech in defence of himself, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada, Lionel Bernstein, James Kantor, Dennis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni. Mandela held a packed court riveted for four hours, in a trial dubbed the ‘Trial of the Century’. His speech held not only the entire courtroom, it also held the entire world with the access to the technology to hear it, spell bound. Whilst certain parts of the Rivonia Trial are more frequently quoted, towards the end of the speech, which describes the effect of discrimination on everyday life, Nelson Mandela made the following observation to the judge:

‘Above all, My Lord, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent’.

In this phrase Nelson Mandela drew a distinct parallel between race and disability discrimination. The use of this comparison between disability and race discrimination is interesting because of the events that followed. The Rivonia Trail provides a grim picture of the nation in 1964, with the kind of economic and social problems that the Constitution can now transform.

South Africa emerged from apartheid not in 1964, but 27 years later. Just after the Rivonia Trial, a South African wheelchair user called Vic Finkelstein who had been imprisoned by the apartheid government, fled to the United Kingdom. Vic Finkelstein wrote widely about his experience of persecution under the apartheid regime. In prison, it surprised him that the prison could be made accessible, when the rest of society was not. What puzzled him most was the effort made by the apartheid government to punish him in an equal way to prisoners without disabilities. As he had no feeling in his legs, where they would beat other prisoners on their legs, they would use an equivalent method for him. This punitive treatment meant that South African prisons during apartheid were both accessible and provided reasonable accommodation where the rest of society was inaccessible and lacking accommodation. In a perverse way, this thinking shaped his disability equality paradigm.

Above: The Nelson Mandela Memorial by Marco Cianfanelli is located in Howick, a town 90 kilometers south from the city of Durban in the countryside of South Africa. Image credit: Shutterstock.


Having considered Nelson Mandela’s comments linking race and disability discrimination, Vic Finkelstein made contact with British academics with disabilities in his new home in the United Kingdom, and wrote extensively. Most of his work is freely available online. With these other disability rights activists, he developed the social model of disability. The Architectural Association used his work in a newly formed Post-Graduate in Environmental Access in London, a course which ran in the 1990s.

Unusual for a School of Architecture at the time, the course tackled disability discrimination in the built environment. The course developed a small number of environmental access academics with significant positions in government and the disability sector.

One of these academics was Eve Grace*, a computer programmer who had fallen down a lift shaft in New York in the early 1980s, when a lift failed to arrive at her floor. Stepping into the ‘lift’ backwards, she was lucky to survive at all, and subsequently used a wheelchair. One of her students at the Architectural Association with whom she worked closely, was Amanda Gibberd, the author of this blog.

In 2010, the Department of Transport in South Africa appointed Amanda Gibberd to implement the Accessible Public Transport Strategy. Accessible transport projects under this strategy are a legacy project of the FIFATM Football World Cup.

Since 1964, disability movements throughout the world have concluded that people with disabilities are discriminated against by society. Legislation on disability rights has been passed in many countries culminating in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

South Africa adopted the UNCRPD in 2007, because it supports the Constitution. Africa has more national ratifications of the UNCRPD than any other continent, and is home to 35% of Commonwealth nations.

The writings of Vic Finkelstein are particularly raw in their clarity and meaning. His, and many others, understanding of disability equality from Mandela’s influence now belongs to the world through the UNCRPD. It underpins South African law. The work of the Department of Transport starts to bring the social model of disability home. As the Summit resolutions state:

“Without transport; walking, cycling, a car, taking a minibus taxi, an e-hailing service, a bus, a coach, a train, a boat or a plane, there is no freedom of movement. Our Constitution says that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of movement’, and that everyone includes people with disabilities.”


* This blog is written in memory of Eve Grace in recognition of her part in this story amongst many others, with grateful thanks. Eve Grace was the blog author’s mentor.

Further Resources

Disability Inclusive Communications Guidelines - Updated

The CPwD Disability Inclusion Guidelines provide guidance to Commonwealth Parliaments and Legislatures on how to enhance and sensitize their communications with persons with disabilities. This version was updated and published in May 2024.

CPwD Network Information Leaflet

The leaflet provides information on how the Commonwealth Parliamentarians with Disabilities (CPwD) network is organised and the activities and programmes it provides for Members.

Engagement, Education and Outreach Handbook for Commonwealth Parliaments

This Handbook provides guidance to Commonwealth Parliaments and Legislatures on how to increase public engagement and outreach, to ensure the public get a greater say in how they are governed.

Plain-Text: CPwD Strategic Plan 2021 - 2024

This is a plain-text, accessible version of the Commonwealth Parliamentarians with Disabilities (CPwD) Strategic Plan 2021 - 2024, which sets out the network's mission statement, outcomes, outputs and thematic priorities.