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Africa’s insensitivity to people with disabilities

It is widely accepted that from the late 20th century Africa has seen real improvement in living standards of its citizens. However, that has been on the background of gullible governments blindly adopting Western-oriented socioeconomic systems which have tended to undermine than enhance, hence weaken traditional social welfare systems.

However, the period has coincided with increasing socioeconomic inequality which has serious implications for traditionally marginalised individuals and population groups such as people with disabilities and women – these people have had many pleasures of human experience withheld from them by unjust institutions.

In a few African states, poorly funded and badly organised state welfare systems have been set up to complement the evidently inadequate and faltering traditional systems. I have previously defined modern-day Africa as a continent where equality of opportunity is not only elusive (perhaps just like anywhere else in the world) but also where efforts to promote equality remain woefully inadequate.

Africa’s economic, political and socio-cultural institutions are deeply isolating as well as restrictive to the personal development of disabled people. Watching the London Paralympics 2012 games once again elevated the subject of the marginalisation of disabled African people to the fore of my blog interests.

Two things were noticeable at the games: 1) the absence of ‘dis’ in the abilities of the athletes and 2) the near absence of athletes from Africa; Uganda (I noted this) had literally three athletes at the games, a small number yet still three more than the total many other countries from the region were prepared to send.

It would be naïve to pretend there exists in any society an equality of individual ability; indeed ability can be viewed along a continuum ranging from a low to a high degree and it is true too that disability may compromise individual ability but inability to achieve certain levels of performance is not necessarily always decidedly a factor of physical deviations from the norm, a myriad of factors come into play of which attitude is a part.

African society’s myths and fears about disability are just as handicapping as the physical limitations consequent from actual impairment. Existing socio-political systems and various power brokering institutions are guilty of profoundly disabling as opposed to empowering people with disabilities.

Speaking in an interview on the BBC News, the Ugandan paralympians expressed their dismay with funding, training facilities and equipment for disabled athletes in their country. This can be contrasted with the disproportionate investment by many African states in able-bodied people’s sport, in particular football; an illusion has been created that national football teams for able-bodied people are national treasure thus states are prepared to commit obscene bonuses to encourage better performance.

The argument of commercial viability or lack of it being the significant determining factor in resourcing of sporting activities may sound justified and devoid of subjectivity yet the question remains why is it that a tournament for disabled people is not as attractive to the spectators and the commercial sector as that of able-bodied people when in some cases abilities may not necessarily be different?

The problem is that African society remains broadly designed to meet the needs of the able-bodied majority and expecting disabled people to adjust to the mainstream society and not the other way round; the consequence has been widespread exclusion of the disabled minority community from wider participation in society.

Person in a wheelchair at the bottom of steps.
Copyright: Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is not often a person’s physical attributes but factors in their environment that limit functioning and create disability.

Where attempts are made to include people with disabilities into normal activities performed by wider society that has been at the behest of social, economic and political inclusion policies drawn by able-bodied legislators whose view of disabled people is that of dependent individuals needing being cared for.

It is a norm that employment and education policies in most African states do not, to a large degree, protect and include people with disabilities. Far from promoting inclusion, the education system through its ‘special schools’ serves as a conduit of propagating, transmitting and maintaining the societal view that disabled people are somehow inferior to able-bodied people.

It is not surprising too that Africa based employers do not try hard enough to promote the engagement of disabled prospective employees or find suitable alternative roles for their injured employees. Unfortunately the view of disabled people as dependents has become a self-fulfilling prophesy; a majority of disabled people have developed and internalised a sense of inferiority.

Disabled people are ashamed to compete with able-bodied citizens; they show undue deference to systems and institutions openly biased to disabled people’s interests and they seem resigned to disproportionately representing poverty within society. In many streets of African cities it is almost a norm that disabled people beg on the streets or talented musicians play rudimentary instruments on the streets not onstage like the majority of equally or even less talented able-bodied musicians.

Now briefly focusing on the Mthwakazi context, there at times exists unbelievable ignorance, complacency and inaction on issues of disability. While I do not expect detailed policies from nationalists at this stage of the revolution, I do expect the political parties to be spelling out their positions on social welfare particularly regarding marginalised constituencies such as women and disabled people within the Mthwakazi nation. Instead I have read with disappointment ignorant comments (not attributable to political leaders or organisations) on the social media about disability being profoundly a problem of particular ethnic groups.

Baseless and bigoted views must be challenged and not be ignored  or tapped into by any responsibly advised community and/ or political leader; the confounding extremist views are a by-product of frustration and anger which is manifesting itself as an unfortunate ethnocentrism. It is absurd to suggest there is an epidemic of disability in certain ethnic groups when not all disability is a biological manifestation. Such views risk promoting complacency among politicians in dealing with issues of disability.

Evidence from the developed world and indeed within the developing world indicates that there are dynamic and intricate links between disability and poverty; people with disabilities perform comparatively worse in most socioeconomic indicators (education, employment, living conditions) than their able-bodies counter-parts. It must therefore not be lost to Mthwakazi leadership that empowering disabled people will be vital in fighting socioeconomic inequalities within Mthwakazi.

Disability can be a barrier to people achieving their goals but it is the attitudes to disability that are the greatest barrier to the personal development of people with disabilities in African society. If our approach to issues of disability continues to be that the world was not created with ramps, we need to acknowledge too that same world was not made with steps. People with disabilities do not have to fit into the able-bodied people’s world; the world that the able-bodied people create needs to stop being discriminatory.


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