Give generously to help change those attitudes that disable other people

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The Independent Online

They have unusual names in Africa, but even by African standards there is something singular about calling a man The Goat. He was called that because, having been crippled by polio, he moved around his village on all fours. For similar reasons the little Burkinabe girl written about in our news pages today is called One Foot. Yet before we rush to judgement about the insensitivity of Africans, we might consider how we also, all too often, talk about individuals by reducing them to their mere impairment.

They have unusual names in Africa. But even by African standards there is something singular about calling a man The Goat. He was called that because, having been crippled by polio, he moved around his village on all fours. For similar reasons the little Burkinabe girl written about in our news pages today is called One Foot. Yet before we rush to judgement about the insensitivity of Africans, we might consider how we also, all too often, talk about individuals by reducing them to their mere impairment.

When did you last hear someone use a phrase like "the blind" or "the disabled", for example. It's only words, but then words are powerful things. When the man known as The Goat was finally provided with callipers, and started to walk upright, people began to call him by the name his parents had given him. Ironically, his proper name was Justice. They have unusual names in Africa.

Sometimes for a problem to be solved it is the environment that needs to change, not the individual who is lumbered with the affliction. Imagine, for a moment, that tomorrow you were struck down by some permanent disability. What do you think you might need to help you cope with the everyday life you currently take for granted? A wheelchair? A prosthetic limb? A hearing aid? Some talking books? A hoist to get you in and out of the bath? Ask most people who are already disabled and you will find that the answer is routinely none of those things.

What people with disabilities actually want – as both of the charities The Independent has chosen for its Christmas Appeal this year understand full well – is not a medical or a technical solution. It is a change in the attitudes of the rest of us who disable other people by transforming superable impairments into problems that exclude them.

Our two nominated charities are Kids and Action of Disability and Development (ADD), which work respectively at home and abroad to address the needs of people with physical and learning problems. They do not do so by dishing out wheelchairs but by building the skills and self-esteem of people with disabilities – through a variety of home-learning programmes, playschemes, family-support and respite-care services, education initiatives and mutual support groups.

The vital new self-assurance which these produce among disabled children and adults, and their families, lead to changes which are real and sustainable. This "social model" of tackling disability is now producing great successes from Beverley to Bangladesh as people with disabilities start to ask how decisions are made and who to influence to change things. Council policy is altered. Teachers embrace new approaches in class. Bus companies change policy. Courts revise their attitudes to the rights of disabled people, as in Bangladesh where an unprecedented prosecution has recently been launched against a man who raped a deaf woman – previously such victims were considered "fair game".

Begging is no longer considered a desirable occupation by many disabled people's organisations, which actively promote alternatives. Banks have begun to reconsider their prejudice that blind people are not credit-worthy. In Ghana, disabled groups have successfully fought for a seat at the table in discussions over how poverty-eradication programmes should be modified to take account of their needs. Even some monasteries in Cambodia have even begun to rethink their Glenn Hoddle-like assumption that Buddhist karma must mean that disability is the result of some wrong you or your parents did in a previous life – even if it did come from standing on a land-mine.

It may seem an odd thing to say at the start of a seasonal fundraising appeal but sometimes changing attitudes is as important as giving money. But then it takes cash to do that too. And the prejudices to be dispelled are far greater obstacles than anything which can be overcome with a wheelchair ramp.

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