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Although the birth of the present-day Association for the Physically Disabled – Greater Johannesburg took place in 1934, the first seeds were planted by the Hope Convalescent Home Committee in the late 1920’s.As the Home could not care for boys older than 14 and girls older than 12 at the time, the Committee recommended to the founders and trustees of the Home (Schumacher Trust) that a portion of their grounds be granted as a site for a new training home to accommodate the older children.

Shortly afterwards, the Home agreed to a request by the various health authorities to admit children who were either disabled, or suffering from chronic heart diseases, for continued treatment once they had been discharged from hospital, and in 1930 a special ward, The Irene Kanthac Ward, was established for this purpose.By 1934 the growing awareness of the plight of people with disabilities, fanned by the Johannesburg branch of the National Council for Women of South Africa (NCWSA), culminated in a public meeting on this topic convened by the wife of the then Mayor of Johannesburg, Mr D Penry Roberts.Those present agreed on the importance of establishing a training home for children with physical disabilities and elected a committee – The Crippled Children’s Training Home Fund – whom they tasked with the responsibility to raise the funds required to build such a home.  Six months later most of the money needed for the proposed Hope Training Home had been secured.

Aware of the need and encouraged by the level of support for the cause of people with physical disabilities, the committee formed the Cripples’ Care Association of the Transvaal on 10 December 1934.

The first highlight for the newly-formed association came just a few days later (21 December) when the Countess of Clarendon laid the foundation stone of the training home and delivered a speech in which she described as The Greatly Caring those who had conceived of the idea of a happier future for people with disabilities. “This undertaking is a tribute to the growth of the public conscience,” she said.

It took two years to construct the Hope Training Home on one of the slopes in Johannesburg’s beautiful suburb of Westcliff. There were twin institutions – the Hope Convalescent Home and the Hope Training Home – established on adjoining sites, working in close alliance, but with separate organisations and separate funds.

During the official opening ceremony of the Hope Training Home on 9 September 1936, the EARL OF CLARENDON paid tribute to all those who had been involved in the process: “Those who pass through this institution will bless not only the many donors who have so kindly contributed, but also the Colonel and Mrs Fennell who donated the site.”

The work of the committee did not end with this function. Once they had ensured that the Home had been properly staffed and equipped, and the first intake of suitable children selected, they generously volunteered their time to ensure the smooth running of not only the Home, but also the Association.

At the time, the committee consisted of a veritable who’s who of Johannesburg – including the mayoral couple, mining magnets and high ranking military officials, and respect for the work being done by the Association grew continuously. Lady Duncan possibly articulated this best when she said: “South Africa is the richer for an institution of this kind.”

Much had indeed been done for people with physical disabilities. Presiding at an early Annual General Meeting of the Cripples’ Care Association, Mr Justice Feetham, the Association’s first President said: “One of our objectives is to devise and promote schemes for the education, training, employment and general welfare of cripples.”

Through the years the wording has changed, but the essence remains the same. In 2013 our Mission Statement is:  To be totally committed to working in partnership with people who have physical disabilities, and their families, in order to promote their integration into society, and to enable them to achieve their full potential.

By 1939 branches were operating all over the country. The need to coordinate the various efforts culminated in a decision to establish a national body (National Council for the Care of Cripples in South Africa) during a conference in Bloemfontein.

Ten years later, the Transvaal branch had touched the lives of thousands of South Africans. “This is a story of brave people in Johannesburg.  It has no trimmings, no spectacular setting, but drama and courage and heartbreak and happiness are of its very essence”, read the introduction of an article published in a 1949 edition of The Rand Daily Mail which highlighted the difficulties and success stories of the Association.

“It is good,” continued the article, “to think of David, a non-European with one leg, who was determined to earn his own living doing hairdressing.  In a letter to the Association, a clergyman interested in the man wrote:  ‘If you could provide David with a pair of electric hair clippers, he believes his business would improve considerably.’  David’s belief was well based; with the electric clippers provided by the Association he is now conducting a thriving business.”

The Association has indeed always been blessed with The Greatly Caring who have passionately pursued the essence of the mission statement of the Association for the past seven decades – to improve the quality of life of all people with physical disabilities.

The pursuit of this goal often called for strong and brave leadership. In the midst of Apartheid, when there was no organised care for disabled people of colour, the Association established a Non-European branch in Soweto.  This branch operated from an eight acre stand in Orlando West which had been donated to the Association by the Johannesburg City Council for the purpose of constructing an adult after-care home and orthopaedic centre.

The Association can rightfully claim that it has always been at the forefront of positive change for people with disabilities.  Mr JC Merkin, Chairman of the Cripples’ Care Association of the Transvaal from 1942 to 1970, greatly influenced the establishment and development of the extensive network of orthopaedic treatment facilities and disability care services that exist in South Africa today.

And his devotion did not stop at the South African borders. As a Vice Chairman of the  National Council for the Care of Cripples in South Africa he often represented South Africa at world congresses of the International Society for the Welfare of the Disabled and served on various of this Society’s committees between 1950 and 1970.

“He was a truly devoted individual,” says Primrose du Plessis – quite a compliment from a remarkable and devoted lady who had until this year served the cause of people with physical disabilities as a member of the Association’s Executive Committee for 63 years. “He did so much for people with disabilities… It is only fitting that the JC Merkin School for Children with Physical Disabilities in Soweto was named in his honour,” she says.

There have, however, been many unsung heroes who have contributed to the success of the Association over the past seventy-five years. People like Primrose who for many years was a very active member of the Golden Link Support Group and who, though in her ninth decade, remained an involved member of the Executive Committee until she retired in July 2011. As a young woman, Primrose managed to get a building donated to the Association. “It happened many years ago when I was employed as a Community Worker with the City Council.  Community Workers,” she laughingly recalls, “were expected to do anything under the sun.  I was therefore always on the move and in a good position to identify areas of need.”

Primrose, however, has never just identified areas of need;  she has always tried to meet them – including the one for a workshop in Orlando, Soweto.  “I had a very good working relationship with my boss at the City Council and that enabled me to twist his arm to donate a building to the community which was developed into a workshop for people with disabilities.” Asked what she remembers most about the early years of the Association, Primrose immediately responded with the spirit of co-operation.  “Everyone would get stuck in if something had to be done; and they were all volunteers!”

She fondly recalls how easy it was to get volunteers to assist with fundraising projects.  “I suppose it was a little easier in those days, as many ladies weren’t working, and were willing to volunteer their time to support a good cause.  Nowadays it’s a different story; today’s fundraisers struggle to get people to help.”

How right she is.  Today one can only dream of a time when VIP’s like Mrs Issie Smuts (wife of then Prime Minister Jan Smuts) was a regular supporter of fundraising auctions/craft sales, and when the crème de la crème of Johannesburg society ladies would flock to a charity bridge afternoon!

No money – no organisation.  This is as true today as it was 80 years ago.  And, generally, what worked as a fundraising campaign decades ago seldom works in our modern society.

Two well-known long-standing local projects of the Association are the Annual Golf Day, (when it started 28 years ago Mrs Gary Player was very actively involved), and the Christmas Card Campaign (the income from which is unfortunately shrinking as the use of the e-mail and SMS form of greeting grows).

Adapt or Die

The milieu in which the Association operates has altered dramatically over the past 80 years. Not only has the country transformed – from a Union to a Republic and finally to Independence, but so also have the people and their life styles.  It is indeed a feather in the cap of all of those involved with the Association that it has been able to survive.

The post-Apartheid era in particular has brought with it a number of significant challenges, challenges such as the convergence of giving away from disability to more “fashionable” topics like HIV/Aids, education, small business promotion and green issues; the demise of volunteerism; and the critical national shortage of social work staff. However, this period has also brought opportunities.  A disabled-friendly legislative framework, including legislation on employment equity and black economic empowerment, has enabled the Association to explore and develop a number of business initiatives that will, over time, reduce its dependence on government subsidies and grants and improve its ability to sustain itself.

This same era has seen the election of the Association’s first Chairperson and President of colour, in 2005 and 2006 respectively.  In 2010 a person of colour was appointed for the first time as the Director of the organization. Through the years the Association has changed its name, its structure, its methods and some of its services, but its relevancy to the people whom it serves is still as significant as it was 80 years ago.

Says former Council member Olga Hochstadter, who can bear witness to the changes that have taken place within the Association during the past 59 years: “The work must continue! The need for what we do is still there.  I know that it has taken on a more challenging dynamic than before, but we must learn from the changing world around us so that we can ensure that our services remain relevant.  That’s primary – our services.”

And, after seventy-nine years of devoted service, the APD can proudly look back on a history enriched with drama, passion, unconditional love and compassion – an infinite source of inspiration from which future generations can draw.

This year, 2019, we salute all the great men and women who have gone before us; fully aware of the massive responsibilities that rest on our shoulders if we too one day want to be referred to as The Greatly Caring…