Article Text

Download PDFPDF

‘This place is not for children like her’: disability, ambiguous belonging and the claiming of disadvantage in postapartheid South Africa
  1. Michelle Botha,
  2. Brian Watermeyer
  1. Disability Studies Division, Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa
  1. Correspondence to Dr Brian Watermeyer, Disability Studies Division, Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, 7700, South Africa; brian.watermeyer{at}


This paper presents an exploration of my experiences and unique positioning as a blind, White South African woman. It explores the complex intersections of multiple axes of identity in my own experience to do with disability, race, class and language and, in so doing, presents some ideas about the ways in which disability complicates and disturbs simplistic identity categories. It draws, in particular, on the experience of my first year of formal schooling which took place in 1994 as South Africa held its first democratic election, bringing a politico-legal, if not actual, end to decades of racial segregation. Using this experience, I explore the ways in which, against the sociopolitical backdrop of apartheid’s racial segregation, ideas about race and disability, that is, Blackness and blindness, became entangled and how this entanglement impacted my ability to claim a place as either blind or sighted. Through this critical engagement I hope to be able to offer a perspective, not only on how the apartheid system operated, forcing the projection of negative characteristics onto Black people, but also on how this legacy continues to impact those of us who occupy unstable positions, at the intersection of privilege and marginality. Central to the argument is the position that the wholesale binding up of social disadvantage with race in the South African context prohibits and manages the status that persons with disabilities are able, or not able, to claim.

  • disability
  • social anthropology
  • medical humanities
  • education

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

Knowing a place by heart suggests that that particular place is home. Whenever we conceive of a place as home, we feel at home there and we know, ‘by heart’, that the place welcomes us. We know, by heart, that we belong in that place and that it belongs to us.1


Identities intersect in ways that are often complex and difficult to negotiate. The various subject positions we occupy can feel contradictory, seemingly impossible to reconcile. Moreover, these intersections take place against a backdrop of specific sociopolitical contexts. Against these various backdrops, how we make ourselves known in society, the things we choose to display and those we choose to hide, can feel like a matter of survival itself. To survive, to maintain acceptance within the established norms of the contexts we inhabit, we are faced with a set of choices about whether, and to what extent, we ‘tell the truth’ about our identities, about ourselves.2 These choices about truth telling can be particularly complex in the experience of people with disabilities, as we become involved in the negotiation of continuous trade-offs, a weighing of costs and benefits of telling truth or telling lies about the realities of life with impairments in societies where disability is associated with a host of negative cultural meanings.1 3 4 In my own experience, as I sought to carve out a place of belonging in the face of hostility towards disability, I found myself in the midst of difficult compromises and problematic collusions linked to an intermingling of race, class and disability identities in my South African context.

This paper, co-authored by my doctoral supervisor (BW), presents an exploration of my experiences and unique positioning as a blind, White South African woman. It draws, in particular, on the experience of my first year of formal schooling which took place in 1994 as South Africa held its first democratic election, bringing a politico-legal, if not actual, end to decades of racial segregation. I explore how my own childhood experience, located within the context of apartheid’s pervasive racial discrimination and resulting racialised inequality, its relentless machinery of ideological and actual violence, caused ideas about disability and race, that is, blindness and Blackness, to become entangled in ways that were, and remain, difficult for me to navigate. I unpack the challenges of negotiating multiple axes of identity to do with disability, race, class and language within an ideological machinery designed to keep people separate, driven by the continuous cultivation of the fear of difference. Schooling under apartheid was an important foundation for the cultivation of this fear and, for me, marked the first time I became aware of the difference of Blackness and the racialised boundaries within which I was protected from that difference. That is, as long as I maintained a place of belonging as sighted, as acceptably able-bodied.

Here, I hope to be able to offer a perspective, not only on how the apartheid system operated, forcing the projection of negative characteristics onto Black people, but also on how this legacy continues to impact those of us who occupy unstable positions, at the intersection of privilege and marginality, in terms of the status we are able, or not able, to claim.

Parallel worlds and ambiguous belonging

When I was 6 years old I started first grade. I attended two quite different schools that year. It was a disjointed and difficult start to my schooling. I did not learn very much except that I was different and that, because of this difference, I could not fit easily into the place which I had previously assumed was my place. I learnt that year, for the first time, what it means to have eyes that do not see. Before the days when 5 year olds were expected to be able to do basic algebra and mostly just ran about having a lovely time, I attended the local pre-school where I finger-painted and ate playdough along with everyone else. I knew I did not see very well. I wore thick glasses and told the other children I was ‘half-blind’, an explanation they accepted. When I was 6, it suddenly became clear that being ‘half-blind’ mattered.

I grew up in the Southern suburbs of Cape Town, in a typical White, middle-class area, in a three bedroomed house with a mom and a dad and a baby brother and a swing-set in the front garden. My belonging was secure within this suburban world, distinctly separate from the fantasy, and reality, of Blackness and poverty, kept out of sight, at the outskirts of the city. My first 6 months of first grade were spent at a mainstream primary school not far from home. In my first week, I made quite a mess of a complex colouring in exercise. My teacher called me up to the front of the class, held up my work and asked in a voice which sounded personally affronted, ‘Why have you done this?’ I did not know what to say, I was mortified. She taught us the ‘Let’s Write Nicely’ song, which we would sing before every writing lesson. After singing the song with the rest of the class, the school receptionist came to fetch me. I spent every writing lesson in her office, building a puzzle or messing around on a computer keyboard. I also sat in her office during a fire drill because I was told it would be easier for me not to walk across the road to the neighbouring church where we would take refuge in the case of an actual fire. This worried me a bit. Would I be remembered if there was a real fire? How would I know what to do if I had never done it before?

My eyes were extremely sensitive to glare and it always took me a good few minutes to adjust to the sunshine of the playground, but I enjoyed the swings and joining in with the other children. I seem to remember a minor playground injury, a scraped knee, a bumped head, which resulted in a decision being made about where I should spend break times in future. Without consulting me or my parents, my teacher explained that I was going to get to play in a special playground instead of joining the other children in the main playground for break time. I could choose two friends each day to join me in the small paved courtyard outside the principal’s office. I had been so excited to start ‘big school’, but now I was anxious and tearful every morning. I begged not to have to go to school, I began to experience separation anxiety and carried little trinkets for comfort; my parent’s wedding photo, a handkerchief containing a sprits of my mom’s perfume. I was obsessed with my school shoes being buckled as tightly as possible, practically cutting off the circulation to my feet. This new arrangement of where I had to play was the final straw for my parents. They had hoped to have me settle in a mainstream school but this now seemed impossible.

There are two schools for the blind in our province which, at that time (the early 1990s) and into the present, underpinned by apartheid’s peculiar legacy, include quite different population groups. One, historically serving White learners, is located about 2 hours away and would have meant weekly boarding for me. I flatly refused. I had an inkling that real-life boarding school would not be even a little bit like the Malory Towers stories my dad read to me, and school, so far, had been a place of deep anxiety for me; I did not want to live there. Thankfully, my parents did not want me to live there either and, after my dad failed to get a work transfer to the school’s area, the option was shelved. The other school, historically for the so-called ‘Coloured’i learners, was located about an hour’s commute away and this was where I spent the next 6 months.

My first impression was of bright yellow. All the poles supporting the rain shelters above the walkways, and the balustrades, were painted yellow. Each morning my dad would drop me off, neatly dressed, my blonde hair carefully tied in a ponytail. I would have to sit in the hostel dining room waiting for the other children to finish their breakfast of porridge which usually smelt burnt and made me feel sick. Someone would inevitably get smacked for not finishing their breakfast.

As the only White child at school, I was a source of fascination to my classmates. On my first day, they all gathered around me, jostling to run their hands through my hair. I was afraid. I did not speak the same language as my classmates who conversed in rapid Afrikaans peppered with slang which, despite my Afrikaans father and surname, I could not follow. I was frightened of the children who had no eyes or the children with albinism whose neglected skin scabbed and flaked. One small girl who could speak some English was assigned to be my friend. We sat next to each other colouring in large, boldly outlined pictures of rabbits with umbrellas and in gym class we each rolled a jingling ball across the floor for the other to catch and return.

At break time, one of the older boys pursued me down a corridor with his hands outstretched. He was tall and groping. I did not know the environment well enough to run away so I shuffled awkwardly out of his reach, my hands held in front of my face, equally groping, afraid of smacking my head into some obstacle. A group of older girls laughed and called after me, ‘Kom terug meisie, hy wil jou soen’ (‘Come back girl, he wants to kiss you’). I soon learnt two vital phrases in Afrikaans; ‘Los my uit!’ (‘Leave me alone!’) and ‘Hou jou mond!’ (‘Shut up!’). I was terrified of my teacher. She could change in an instant, 1 minute handing us each a sweet and the next beating one of the boys with a ruler.ii She laughed at me when I shut my eyes and blocked my ears. Looking back I realise how my Whiteness protected me from the violent punishments meted out to the other children. I am quite certain that my ‘Coloured’ teacher would not have dared hit a White child. I witnessed this kind of physical violence on a daily basis and I was shocked and frightened. My separation anxiety persisted and my dad invented all sorts of jokes and games to keep me distracted during our daily commute to school.

At the end of the year, each child received a food parcel to take home for the holidays. Two large plastic shopping bags filled with fruit, tea, sugar, porridge and tinned food were handed to me. I asked my mom why I had been given the food and she explained that most of my classmates lived in very poor areas, like the distant, sprawling Khayelitshaiii seen from the car on the way to fetch my dad from the airport, and, without their regular hostel meals, they might not have enough to eat over the holidays. I felt terrible that I had also been given a food parcel even though I did not need one.

On my last day at the blind school, my teacher said to my mom, ‘It’s a good thing you’re doing, this place isn’t for children like her’. I can only assume that by this she meant White children. As though Black children somehow deserved burnt porridge and picture books with half the pages torn out of them and a beating with a ruler. Driving away from the blind school for the last time, I asked my mom whether there would be other White children at my new school or if it would just be me again.

When I was 6 years old, I learnt that being ‘half-blind’ was not an okay thing to be. In mainstream school, I learnt that because I was ‘half-blind’ I could not be included in most activities and, even though my teachers made it sound special, I knew my isolation from the other children was some sort of punishment. At the blind school, I learnt that ‘half-blind’ children get sent away from home. I learnt that ‘half-blind’ children are Black, poor and neglected. I learnt that they have runny noses and eyes which seep. But at the blind school, I also learnt what it feels like to participate in activities that do not demand sight, what it feels like to be understood as ‘half blind’. And yet I knew that this place was not for children like me. I learnt that I would not (and could not) be ‘half-blind’ or any kind of blind. I knew that I did not belong in the marginal, brutal, frightening world of blindness and if I was going to belong anywhere else I would need not to be blind.

Who we are and where we belong

Michalko’s The Difference That Disability Makes theorises a connection between ‘who we are’ and ‘where we belong’.1 Identity, he suggests, is bound up with the knowledge that we belong, that our world has a place for us; that we are accepted in, what he calls, our ‘homeland’. What he learns, as a young legally blind man, is that his ‘homeland’ does not welcome blindness, that his blindness is subject to cultural meanings which relegate him to the margins. In his experience, the meanings of blindness become entangled with gendered meanings and this costs him his place in the realm of the masculine, his identity as ‘one of the guys’. Through the feminising taunts of his peers, he becomes ‘connected to groups of people who, while in the homeland, were relegated to its margins’ (Michalko, p20–21).1 The feminist scholar, Wilchins,2 uses her experience as a transgendered person to discuss how cultural meanings, ‘draped’ over bodies by a society founded on monolithic gender norms, place individuals in positions where they must weigh up the costs of ‘telling the truth’ or not. Her use of the concept of ‘truth telling’ stems from Foucault’s question about bodies as objects of knowledge for others, that is, how we read one another and make ourselves readable in our communities.2 For Michalko,1 the cost of telling the truth, that is, being read as blind through the performance of sitting in the front of the classroom or using visual aids, is acceptance as a man in his ‘homeland’.

When truth telling threatens belonging we must make use of performances which allow us to regain and/or maintain our place. History and culture are shot through with negative meanings for disability and it is the relentless construction of disability as burdensome, dependent, valueless and suffering which causes people to ‘commit life and limb to not being disabled’ (p95).5 For Michalko,1 the meanings of blindness, mingling with meanings for acceptable masculinity, threatened his gendered belonging and had to be counteracted by means of an aggressive masculine performance. He recalls:

As a young adolescent boy, I responded, first, with several crying bouts (in the private realm of the feminine), then with several schoolyard and street fights (in the public realm of the masculine), until finally I decided that I needed to change things. Moving to a new neighbourhood and attending a new school gave me the opportunity to do so. (Michalko, p21)1

In order to regain his belonging, Michalko must take action.1 Ultimately, he must start again in a new place where he is able to recreate himself, where, through a set of carefully managed performances, he will be able to be understood and accepted as a sighted person, although one whose eyes do not work very well. At the end of my first year of school, I came to the same conclusion; I would start over in a new place and I would not be blind. More than this though, I felt I could not be blind. Like Michalko, my time at the blind school had connected me to groups of people who were ‘other’. But unlike the girls in Michalko’s school, marginal but yet still in the ‘homeland’, the groups of people I was being connected to, in a South Africa only a few months free from decades of racial segregation, were, quite literally, actually, legally, not welcome in the White, middle-class, suburban ‘homeland’, my ‘homeland’, at all.iv

My disjointed first grade year took place in 1994 as South Africa held its first democratic election. The end of apartheid registered only vaguely on my 6-year-old radar. I remember an uncle shooing a Black homeless man away from his front gate with the words, ‘Why are you asking me for money? Mandela is out, ask him’. I knew that Nelson Mandela was a man who had been in jail for a long time and now he was the president, which meant ‘the boss of everyone’. I did not quite understand how someone who had been in jail, a place where kidnappers (the worst boogie men) were sent, could be president, but the people on the television seemed really excited about it. Our domestic worker stood in our lounge ironing, her eyes glued to the televised inauguration. I remember colouring in a picture of the new South African flag at (the mainstream) school and our teacher telling us about how the different colours represented the ocean and peace and the bloodshed in the struggle. I was not sure what the struggle was but the church we attended had been attackedv the previous year and I guessed this had something to do with the struggle. I did not know there had been another South African flag and I did not know there had been another national anthem. Our teacher told us that ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ meant ‘God bless Africa’, which seemed like a good sentiment to me.

And yet, everything in my world told me that Black people did not belong in my place and I did not belong in theirs. My fit in the system of racial segregation, in which I was privileged as White, was seamless and undisturbed. I did not question why the woman who cleaned our house was Black, or why the Black man who worked in our garden on a Saturday was called a ‘garden boy’, or why, in a class of 25 children at the mainstream school, only 1 was not White. My friends were White and the women who made snacks for them after school were Black; the moms pushing shopping trollies at the local supermarket were White and the women who rang up the groceries were Black; my teachers were White and the women who cleaned the school were Black. My world was structured, in a very real, spatial way, by this binary which told me where I belonged and, crucially, where I did not. That is until I was forced, through necessity, to transgress these spatial boundaries produced by a racist system designed to keep people separate through the cultivation of fear and hatred. In my experience, for a moment, as I sat in the blind school hostel dining room, the fabric of separation created by apartheid was torn and I came face to face with the embodiment of not belonging. My classmates were, for me, the shadow, not only of ability in a society which marginalises the disabled, but also of Whiteness, of privilege, of acceptability in a racist society where Whiteness, privilege and acceptability were inextricably linked. At the blind school, I saw what it was to belong in the space of those who did not belong and I knew it was my ‘half-blindness’ that had done this to me. Against the backdrop of the relentless structural, symbolic, psychic and physical violence within which my classmates were enmeshed, I was trying to make sense of my own identity, what it would cost me to be blind. For me, the cost of telling the truth about blindness was immense and, as a result, I sought to separate myself from blindness, a decision which had complex costs of its own.

Maintaining a place

I left the blind school after only 6 months, determined that I would not (and could not) be blind. I started first grade for the second time at a small school for children with various special needs where I was secure and happy but also aware that the end goal was to return to mainstream school. Every year children would come and go and the ones who went were the success stories. When it was finally my turn to go, I knew what I had to do. I had to be just the right amount of ‘half blind’, or ‘partially sighted’, as I now referred to myself. I had to be ‘partially sighted’ enough to get extra time for exams and exempted from compulsory sport. It also would not hurt to endear myself to teachers and win the occasional prize for achievement under difficult circumstances. But evident even in the name I chose for myself was the reminder that I was still sighted, partially but sighted. At the time, inclusion of severely sight impaired learners into mainstream schools was rare, and today, despite the development of inclusive education policy, it is certainly not the norm for children with disabilities to be educated in mainstream schools in South Africa.6 I knew that to maintain my place I had to remain a member of the group of people who could see.

So I made sure to be a typical middle-class, White, Model Cvi, girls’ school girl striding confidently around the campus I had learnt by heart. I stared with interest at blackboards I could not see and discarded my thick glasses. My eyes streamed as I scanned a map with a pocket magnifying glass during a geography test, my neck ached as I leaned forward to squint at a computer screen during computer lessons and my heart pounded with anxiety as I navigated the steps up to the platform at the vocal eisteddfod. I had sighted friends and did sighted things. I took part in plays where, blinded by stage lights, I was keenly aware of my inability to see the edge of the stage and I handed out pamphlets at a three-lane intersection, using the rev of car engines as my cue to get back to the pavement, to make some holiday pocket money. But, as my eyesight worsened, an expected outcome of my visual condition, blindness, and all it had come to mean for me, began to threaten my place once more. When I was 18, someone advised me that going to university without proper mobility skills was a bad idea and so my parents contacted and hired a mobility trainer to teach me how to use a white cane. He took me to my school and made me practice around the campus. I felt completely exposed, my secret was out. Now everyone knew I was just like the children at the blind school. I put the cane away and did not use it for another 2 years, choosing instead the daily stress of navigating a busy and complicated university campus without assistance.

For me, the costs of being located on the wrong side of the split between disability and ability were immense as these were inextricably linked to the fantasies about Blackness which the apartheid system had been invested in producing and perpetuating. These fantasies were experienced by all White South Africans in differing ways but, in my experience, there seemed to be no escape, no room to question or disrupt these; the cost was too great. The cane was a symbol of the degeneracy, the brokenness and the vulnerability I had left behind at the blind school, which I continued to project onto the, now nameless and faceless, blind, Black, poor, neglected children there. For me, blindness had become synonymous with a deprivation inextricably linked to being Black in apartheid and, in fact, present day, South Africa and a brutal way of life which I felt I had escaped, mostly because I was White and the adults around me recognised that I did not belong in the place of the Black and the poor and, perhaps, even the blind. But this status had to be maintained by means of continuous trade-offs, emotional and physical, which denied vulnerability, struggle and, in short, the reality of the disability I embodied.3 I began to understand this when my sight had degenerated to the point where I could no longer avoid using my cane. During this difficult time, a friend and mentor suggested I read the autobiographical work of a few blind Disability Studies scholars. At the time, although doing courses in Gender Studies and reading a lot of both Western and African Feminists, I had not yet realised that disability was something that could be theorised beyond the mere fact of a body that did not work properly. I started with Sally French’s Can You See the Rainbow? 7 I must have read it at least five or six times over. I was amazed that a complete stranger could write so profoundly about my own experience. I realised that what I had been doing throughout my teens and into my early twenties was not unique to me. It was called ‘passing’ and I was a seasoned pro. French spoke about passing as a way to comfort others, particularly her family, and I certainly felt the resonance of that, but I felt that my passing performance was about more than protecting those in my life from knowing the difficult reality of blindness and the daily struggles I was facing.

I read Stephen Kuusisto’s Planet of the Blind and was struck by his description of an encounter with a ‘heavy-set’, blind social worker who came to his home to meet with his parents.8 It seems that for his mother, this woman represented everything that was horrific about blindness, that is, the institution, the mark of a white cane, Braille and the weaving of baskets. Somehow, the fact that this social worker was also overweight, notably enough for Kuusisto to use it as a descriptor years after the encounter, seemed to add another layer to the terrible difference she embodied. Kuusisto was made to understand that he could either belong in the world of the blind, fat social worker with her markers of difference, or he could struggle on in the world of the sighted which was far preferable to being taught to weave baskets in the world of the blind; there was no middle ground.8 I recognised in this account my own fear and revulsion towards the things of blindness, the blind institution, the hostel’s burnt porridge and the white cane folded up in my handbag. Kuusisto’s social worker was for him what the children at the blind school were for me, that is, the embodiment of the negative cultural meanings about blindness, notably similar across contexts and histories, which associate blindness with loss, misfortune, the terror of ‘descending darkness’, both literal and metaphorical, as a lack of sight is equated with loss of knowledge.9 They were the shadow on the unacceptable side of a strict binary between ability and disability. It is a binary which society is deeply invested in maintaining, as it offers the psychic security of belonging to those with typical bodies, by means of a continuous ‘unconscious transaction’ which constructs a disabled other who is inherently frail, broken, monstrously different and, therefore, necessarily excluded from belonging.4 This disabled other constitutes what it is to be abled. Foucault explored this concept, of the constitutive other, in terms of madness and reason. He argued that the stable, rational, reasonable subject, demanded and accepted by post-enlightenment society, can only be apprehended in opposition to the mad man, that is, the unreasonable subject relegated to the marginal space of the asylum.10 In other words, we can be secure in knowing who we are because we know who we are not.

I realised, moreover, that unlike Kuusisto, there was something else at work, impacting my ability to identify as disabled, linked to the maintenance of my privilege as White. This privilege is what allowed me to escape the marginal space of the blind school, ‘this place is not for children like her’, and I was gut-wrenchingly relieved. But I was also guilty. Guilty for how relieved I was, how lucky I was to be leaving that marginal space and those marginal people, and guilty for how I felt required to set myself up against the poor, blind, Black, groping boy at the blind school in order to maintain my place of acceptability as, if not a full member, then at least an honorary member of the sighted norm. Jordan recognises a constructed Black other providing legitimacy and, at the same time, invisibility to Whiteness.11 The boundaries of the binary of acceptability, as reasonable, as White, as abled, are strict. As Erevelles states, with reference to Foucault, in order for the coherency of subjects to be maintained, reason and madness are ‘constituted as binary opposites that appear to be immune to exchange’ (Erevelles, p55).12 This binary assures those who belong that, we do not belong in the place of the mad or the Black or the blind, and they do not belong in our place. What this does not account for, however, is unstable positioning and complicated intersections in real lives.

Intersections of disability and race

The operation of apartheid, the organisation of space along the lines of race, did not leave disabled people untouched. The legacy of apartheid’s institutionalised racism has left its mark on education (basic and tertiary), employment, social support services and access to assistive technology for people with disabilities.6 Reflecting the broader racial inequality in South Africa, people with disabilities who are able to access quality basic education, entrance into tertiary education, gainful employment, private healthcare, individualised support services and assistive devices are overwhelmingly White, while people occupying vocational training centres, protected workshops, under-resourced public care facilities and reliant on inadequate government disability grants are overwhelmingly Black. A present-day government with scant regard for the human rights of people with disabilities continues to carve this divide ever deeper. In South Africa, understanding the social positioning of people with disabilities has to be accompanied by an understanding of ongoing, systemic racial inequality.

Within this context, my positioning is complex, at an intersection of undeniable racial privilege and real struggle linked to embodying disability. This intersection is difficult to navigate as my obvious privilege as a White South African comes up against my experiences of struggle as a disabled South African, with the former often obscuring and invalidating the latter to the point where, for many years, I truly believed that I could not actually be disabled because I was neither Black nor poor. Moreover, my experience of what it was to belong outside of Whiteness, privilege, acceptability and ability made me determined that I would not be disabled, that disability was something that must be escaped. Escaping disability and escaping Blackness amounted to the same thing in my experience, a conflation which left me unsure about what status I was able to claim years later when I found myself desiring a place in, and identification with, blindness. Problematically, accounts of this kind of complex intersection and unstable positioning in the experience of people with disabilities are relatively lacking.13 14 Where work in Disability Studies or Critical Race Theory has dealt with the intersection of race and disability, it has often resorted to simplistic metaphorising in order to account for the operation of multiple systems of oppression.

Disability provides a very useful metaphor for oppression, for bodies who are marked, managed and prohibited from access. Feminists have used this metaphor to unpack the oppression of women, their social disablement. In doing this, the feminist movement has positioned women with disabilities as simply an image of female disempowerment, the shadow of agency, and dissociated itself from disabled people broadly and women in particular.15 This has prompted critique from women with disabilities. Mairs, for example, issues this strong reminder, ‘I embody the metaphors. Only whether or not I like doing so is immaterial’ (p59).16 In the same way, disability has been used as a metaphor for the historical oppression, segregation and relegation of Black people. For example, Witek views disability as the ultimate form of Black powerlessness and, thus, in his research with Black, blind blues musicians, he understands sightlessness as a form of Blackness.17 For him, it appears that Blackness and sightlessness are exchangeable as ‘a mark by which the dominant culture can categorise and exclude its disfranchised’ (Witek, p192).17 The inference here is that to be disabled is to be ‘Black’ and to be black is to be ‘disabled’.

Pagan makes a similar argument in relation to the social disability of inarticulacy, the inability to speak, suffered by Black South Africans under the violent oppression of apartheid.18 She draws on South African literature, JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians 19 and Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother,20 connected to apartheid and postapartheid contexts, respectively, in order to map ongoing patterns of racialised violence, shared cultural trauma and imposed silence in the lives of Black South Africans.18 By framing her argument with the social model of disability, she makes a case for the ongoing social disablement of Black South Africans and draws strong links between the experiences of Blackness and those of disability.18 Bolaki,21 in her discussion of the intersection of race, gender, sexuality and disability/illness in the life of Audre Lorde, walks a fine line as she attempts to avoid falling into ‘the simplistic generalisation’ which conflates race with disability. However, as she recounts Lorde’s experiences of being denied access to ‘Whites only’ spaces under American Jim Crow racial segregation, the parallels between disability and racial discrimination seem obvious and Bolaki, therefore, suggests that, here, race ‘becomes a performance of disability’ (Bolaki, p52).21 While there may be similar threads of experience linking those who encounter racial or ableist discrimination, an uncritical conflation of the two is very problematic, especially for those of us who inhabit seemingly contradictory positions.

Earning a place

Some years ago, while working in a blind sector organisation alongside a number of blind colleagues, once again the only White girl from the Southern suburbs, one of my colleagues christened me, with no hint of malice, ‘our high class female’. A term of endearment (I was theirs after all) but also a little reminder of my separate status. I took the train through to work regularly and this earned me, the high class female, a badge of honour, shared experience of struggle with other blind (and sighted) colleagues who had to use unreliable public transport. I felt as though I was earning my place, recognition of the often difficult reality of blindness in my life and acceptance within a community of people who shared this reality. When, for one or other reason, I did not take the train but made use of private transport or a paid cab, I would face their disdain. No longer ‘our high class female’, I would, for at least a few days, be known as ‘Daddy’s girl’, spoilt, indulged, privileged and, again, separate.

Over the past several years I have felt involved in a process of becoming disabled, a reclaiming of my disability identity. As my sight grew worse, I began to identify as blind and desire connection, recognition and a place within blindness. This has thrust me, once again, into marginal spaces and into relationships with people who are racially and socioeconomically different from me. This remains difficult and complicated. I face the continuous challenge of navigating the ways in which my privilege interacts with my experiences of struggle and, particularly, how this impacts my position within this diverse group of people who make up the so-called ‘blind community’ in South Africa. As Pagan’s examination of Waiting for the Barbarians suggests, even though the privileged protagonist, the Magistrate, crosses the boundary into otherness, is imprisoned, tortured, disabled and left homeless, he acknowledges that he cannot ever fully understand the experiences of the oppressed and silenced barbarian girl as he remains protected by his privilege.18

At this stage, unlike in my days of striding around high school, there is no denying that I am blind, it is a fact and I have all the trappings to prove it. But, as someone of my race, my socioeconomic background, my education, to what extent am I allowed to claim struggle?22 My Whiteness, after all, was my ticket out of marginality in the first place, ‘this place is not for children like her’. Places often hostile to disability were made easier to navigate by my socioeconomic privilege, the access to resources and education this afforded me. Inclusion in a mainstream high school and entrance into university were possibilities for me while remaining completely out of reach for the vast majority of disabled South Africans. How do I reconcile that, with the discrimination I face in an ableist society; the bank-teller who will not address me directly, or, the fellow student, some years ago, who expressed his amazement at seeing me on campus because ‘blind people cannot learn’, or the weekly experience of being denied access by security guards because of my guide dog? The recent countrywide, Fees Must Fall, student protests which called for transformation in South African academic institutions, decolonisation of curricula and measures to improve financial aid to facilitate equal access to quality education for all, were a stark reminder of ongoing, systemic inequality and a colonial legacy which has been left largely uninterrogated in South African higher education. Although students with disabilities and their specific challenges formed some part of the protest action, there were those who felt that only Black students with disabilities had the right to claim to be disabled.This is indicative of the predicament those of us who straddle identity categories find ourselves in. Can ‘Daddy’s girl’ earn her place as someone who is also disadvantaged by an ableist society?

This is an ongoing struggle for me; recognising the reality of what visual impairment is doing in my life while attempting to escape simplistic splits and the superimposing of identities on one another. To recognise what I share with the children at the blind school while acknowledging what I do not is part of the challenge of claiming a place of belonging and, hopefully, sheds light on the operation of discrimination of different kinds and at many levels. Getting to grips with the ways in which disability disrupts simplistic categories is ongoing for me.


What this is not, I hope, is a story of finding a place, of solving the puzzle of my own complicated identity. I do not claim to have done that. What I hope to have offered a perspective on is the way in which disability scrambles identities, complicating the simplistic split between privilege and oppression in ways that can be difficult to navigate. In South Africa in particular, this scrambling is difficult to get to grips with, as racial discrimination, in the wake of apartheid’s peculiar legacy, has become the primary, at times exclusive, lens through which to recognise and speak about social disadvantage.22 Binding up race with social disadvantage in this way, needless to say, causes us to miss a host of other social injustices to do with other identity categories. It also places those of us with unstable positions in complex situations, unsure of the place we are able to claim, where and whether we can belong as part of groups of people who do experience oppression and disadvantage.



  • i ‘Coloured’ is a racial categorisation constructed under the apartheid system to refer to people of racially mixed parentage. At the time when I attended the school, it included mostly ‘Coloured’ learners but also some learners who would have been categorised as ‘Black’ under apartheid. In this paper, I use the term ‘Black’ to refer to all racial categorisations, manufactured under apartheid, who were marginalised by apartheid’s system of racist laws.

  • ii Corporal punishment had not yet been outlawed in South African schools.

  • iii Khayelitsha is an informal settlement on the outskirts of Cape Town city. It was an area designated for Black people under the apartheid system which stipulated where people of certain racial groups were allowed to live. It remains one of the largest informal settlements in South Africa with a population of approximately 400 000 living in conditions of extreme poverty.

  • iv Apartheid ultimately removed the right of Black people to belong as legal citizens of South Africa through the construction of (literal) homelands, or ‘Bantustans’. This system of homelands sustained apartheid ideology by prohibiting the political, economic and social participation of Black people and curbing their freedom of movement.

  • v On 25 July 1993, four members of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) attacked St James Church in Kenilworth, Cape Town, killing 11 people.

  • vi Model C is a term still used to refer to former White’s only government or semiprivate schools under apartheid.

  • Contributors MB wrote the initial draft which was then augmented and edited by BW.

  • Funding This study was funded by National Research Foundation (grant number: 108 476).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.