Q&A with Shonaquip: Innovation landscape for disability in South Africa

South Africa’s National Rehabilitation policy document introduced in 2000 recognized that the needs of disabled people were not adequately met in the South Africa public health sector, and that intervention was needed in the way rehabilitation services for disabled individuals were designed and delivered[i].  The document outlined proposals for an integrated care model in accordance with WHO guidelines that encourage capacity building of staff, and provision of assistive devices to disabled individuals.

Years later, the state of rehabilitation services in South Africa has not transformed at the pace hoped for when this policy was introduced. Although the provision of accessible primary care has been a national priority, access to care for disabled individuals and improvement of their quality of life is little mentioned. Particularly impacted are disabled individuals living in poverty striken areas, with poor infrastructre and harsh living conditions, and whose development and health have been negatively impacted. Thus, the role of entrepreneurs in this sector has been valuable and has focused on innovative ways of providing care for disabled people despite the shortage of workers in the sector. Shonaquip, a member our South African CHMI network, is one of these organizations.

Within the landscape of physical disability in Southern Africa, Shonaquip fulfills an important function of manufacturing and supplying quality, low-cost wheelchairs and positioning devices to those clients and patients who are the most in need of help. The wheelchairs are manufactured at the Shonaquip factory in Plumstead which employs individuals with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities. The revenue raised from the sale of positioning devices and wheelchairs contributes to the organization’s revenue. The primary market for this necessary equipment is the government, through the provincial departments of health, and other private buyers. The Uhambo Foundation, which was founded as a separate entity from Shonaquip, bolsters the work being done by Shonaquip by advocating for the rights of disabled people and their families especially in low-socio economic environments that experience stigma around disbality the most. Uhambo offers needs based support to families and people with disabilities, and Shonaquip has helped to train the caregivers responsible for the care of children with disabilities while also providing job opportunities to disabled individuals. We spoke to Shona McDonald, founder of Shonaquip, to draw on her learnings and challenges working in this sector.

A: What motivated you to start the centre? 

Shona: When my second child was born with severe disabilities I was advised by doctors to put her in a home and have another baby.  I started Shonaquip because I wanted other moms to have choices, more information and useful equipment which could assist them in providing their children with opportunities and a reasonable quality of life.  

A: Why do you think disability was an area that was not adequately resourced? 

Shona: We come from a history of segregation and marginalisation of people who are different.  Children with disabilities are often misunderstood and not valued by society.  Ignorance, stigmas, myths and cultural differences are a barrier to inclusion. 

A: What have been major challenges in your work?  

Barriers to access; long distances for clients to travel; inaccessible transport; charity thinking where anything is better than nothing if you are poor and disabled,; scarce resources and lack of investment in disability by Government and other funding agencies  

A: And how have you overcome these? 

Stubborn persistence and a wonderful committed team

A:  If you were to speak to an innovator who wants to address disability in their area, what would you advise them?

Shona: Really get to know your end users, live with their challenges, make sure they know what could be possible  and make sure what you make is adaptable and appropriate to individuals as nobody is the same  

Shonaquip has touched the lives of many families in rural settings where there is a severe lack of resources and disability is still stigmatized. By promoting and supporting the rights and equal participation of people with disabilities in their families and communities, Shonaquip empowers the broader community as well as individual caregivers and parents who are given the resources to contribute to their child’s development. Shona’s dedication and ingenuity has opened up the conversation for innovation geared towards improving the lives of people with disabilities.



[i] The South African (SA) National Rehabilitation Policy (NRP)