16 Days of Activism: International Day of People with Disability
Breaking down the Limits of Ableism
By: Vimbai Chinembiri
‘The only disability in life is a bad attitude.’ Scott Hamilton
In 2012, as a second year Journalism student at a local Zimbabwean University, I was on air in one of the country’s national radio stations, demanding that tertiary institutions be made accessible to everyone, especially for people with disabilities. Then, I was thinking specifically about someone who uses a wheelchair. The second floor where I studied had ablution wheelchair-accessible facilities, yet there was no ramp to get from the ground floor to the second floor—better yet, to study from this area.
Today, as a reflection and having attended and helped organise events such as the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, I am ashamed to say that able-bodied people have bad attitudes when it comes to other forms of being, and that is our disability. We have failed to consider other people’s needs, possibly because we are not affected.
This said, ignorance may be high on the list of this disability that we have as communities and nations. When we build ramps for people who are wheelchair bound, we do noble things. However, we are often blind to the fact that we are assuming that is the only disability we have in society. There is a need for people to know what exactly disability is, its different forms and its implications.
According to Disabled World, a disability is a condition or function judged to be significantly impaired relative to the usual standard of an individual or group. The term is used to refer to individual functioning, including physical impairment, sensory impairment, cognitive impairment, intellectual impairment mental illness, and various types of chronic disease.
Participation and activity restrictions as well as body structure and function (which involves impairment) are broad ways of looking at disabilities. In close assessments, we will notice that mobility and physical impairments are a type of disability. This is the type that often people think about when they think of any disability. It involves lower and upper limb disability, inability for different organs of the body to coordinate and also manual dexterity. This type of disability may be inborn or acquired during the aging process, it can come as a result of a disease. A broken bone is classified as a disability under this type.
A head injury or brain disability is another type. Brain injury often comes in two forms, it can be acquired or come as a result of a traumatic experience. The causes of this type of disability are many and often are a result of external forces applied to body parts. A family friend’s daughter from church has this type of disability and it was caused after her nanny dropped her and she injured her head a few months after birth. Emotional and behavioural disturbances can also cause brain injury, any form of abuse inflicted on an individual may cause this.
A third type is cognitive or learning disability that come as a result of dyslexia. It affects one’s ability to read and write and often results in speech disorders. The type of disability we have just discussed is often believed to be a mental disorder, which is not true because we do amongst us face psychological disorders. Mental health impairment is actually the term used to describe psychological disorders and these include personality disorders- inadequate patterns of behaviour that often affect one’s day to day activities as well as schizophrenia, a most common one which is characterised by mood, thinking and behaviour disorders.
We also are affected by vision and hearing disabilities and these can be classified separately. Thousands of people suffer from minor to serious vision disabilities or impairments. Conditions such as diabetes may also have an effect on one’s vision. Minor problems can sometimes be corrected by operations or by spectacles while some are irreversible. Hearing disabilities on the other hand include people who are completely or partially deaf. Hearing aids are often used by partially deaf people to assist in their hearing. Deafness can be visible at birth or can occur later in life due to conditions such as meningitis. Sign language is used by deaf people and in linguistic terms it is as rich and complex as any oral language.
The last two I will discuss in this article are spinal cord disabilities and invisible disabilities. The spinal cord may be affected at birth or may be affected by a severe accident. Often it causes the dis-functioning of sensory organs. Invisible disabilities are what the majority of the global population suffer from, these are disabilities that are often not apparent to people around an individual. For example my small finger cannot be clasped together with the other four, attempting to do so is quite painful.
This said, it is time to reflect on how our collective actions make life easy or difficult for people with disabilities. I recently attended two big International events. I was happy to see sign language interpreters at most of the parallel events, however, no one with vision impairments was catered to in terms of including braille versions of the programme, flyers and booklets available. One of the venues had countless steps yet there was no ramp for persons who use wheelchairs.
It is important to note that malnutrition and disease, environmental hazards, traffic and industrial accidents, and civil conflict and war are also risk factors and increase the number of people with disabilities. Therefore- how do we keep our environments safe to reduce disabilities? When we do not empower individuals to be economically independence, when we engage in activities that destroy the environment and fuel wars, are we cognisant of the serious impact on human life and well-being?
United Nations statistics report that there are currently over 600 million persons with disabilities throughout the world of whom 400 million live in developing countries and 80 million in Africa. A World Health Organization source maintains that about forty percent of Africa’s population consists of people with disabilities, including 10-15 percent of school-age children. While we appreciate the important development in May 2008 of the coming into force of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, there is a need for governments to fully implement these commitments.
Locally Situating the Reality
In Zimbabwe and most African countries, people on wheelchairs, the deaf and mute make the large population of vendors on the streets. They are given preference in terms of accessing vending spaces. However do we have transport that is travel-friendly for them—No! The other disturbing thing is that why do we a large number of disabled people who work as vendors. Why are our education sectors failing to enable them to access a wide range of professional options?
A few years back, a woman complained that when she uses public transport, different people (especially men) carry her into the taxis and often they touch her on the breasts and buttocks and this is humiliating and tantamount to sexual harassment. This is reflective of how people with disabilities are also left out in perceived ‘comprehensive’ sexual and reproductive health services. One woman said:
‘Society assumes because I am disabled, I do not have sexual needs, which is not true because I have sexual needs too.’
Where to now?
Our governments in partnership with civil society and community leadership should ensure that everyone counts. At the community level, discrimination is one of the biggest problems people with disabilities face. They are shunned and believed to be plagued by some form of contagious disease- a sad reality. Furthermore, some violating cultures turn young disabled children into victims of sexual violence by perpetrating myths that having sex with them may bring wealth.
What we need more than anything, are systems which are sensitive to each and every disability. This is one of the things that the Sustainable Development Goals need to push. Our environments should not increase disability instead one who has any disability should have comfort in knowing that his/her environment is there to make life easy.
Soneni Gwizi, a radio broadcaster and disability activist could not have said it better when she said,
‘Collective voices should echo challenges faced by girls and women with disabilities, sexual abuse and gender based violence as well as HIV and Aids. People with disabilities are the most vulnerable in any society. We should protect all humanity and do away with stigma.’
Ms Gwizi also bemoaned the way the day is overshadowed by other movements which are critical.
‘Sadly the International Day of People with Disabilities is overshadowed by events such as the World Aids Day and the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. Our day becomes just like any other normal day,’ she said.
After all is said and done the most important things is that from a community level we have to be aware of the different disabilities we all have. One might think that they have no disability but theirs is failing to make life easy for those with visible ones. We must fight stigma, ensure our external structures are friendly- from the home, church, bar and school.
Let us not rush to make services free for people with disabilities without seeing if they can be fully utilised. More importantly when we become sensitive to everyone around us we make the world a better place.◊
Vimbai Chinembiri is a journalist based in Zimbabwe.
This piece was brought to you by Her Zimbabwe, a web-based platform that amplifies the voices of Zimbabwe’s women