We are all potential persons with disabilities

Mr Johnson Mayamba 

What you need to know:

  • The World Health Organisation estimates that around 15 percent of the global population, or approximately one billion people, are PWDs, who are considered the world’s largest minority group. Most of them live in poverty and are excluded from opportunities to work and study. While at it, their daily lives are characterised by stigma in the way they interact with communities, yet they suffer in silence. 

I was an active child who played football in the village using a ball made out of banana fibres. One day, my opponent missed the ball and kicked my leg, dislocating the kneecap. I can recall the pain at the time and so many things I could no longer do on my won, save with the help of my grandmother who I was staying with alone. While I eventually healed, this recollection reminded me that we are all potential Persons with Disabilities (PWDs), especially as we age.   

This week marks 30 years since United Nations established December 3 as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The day was set aside to “promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development, and to increase awareness of the situation of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life”. It is also a plain reminder of how far we need to go in meeting the needs of the PWDs.

The World Health Organisation estimates that around 15 percent of the global population, or approximately one billion people, are PWDs, who are considered the world’s largest minority group. Most of them live in poverty and are excluded from opportunities to work and study. While at it, their daily lives are characterised by stigma in the way they interact with communities, yet they suffer in silence. 

I would like to point out some of the ways in which we discriminate PWDs either deliberately or out of ignorance. Sometimes our unconscious misconceptions about PWDs result in impolite or thoughtless acts which we probably could have thought were well-meaning.

For instance, when meeting persons with visual impairment, especially when they have other people guiding them around, the unconscious misconception in most of us is that the blind cannot talk except through their guides.  From today, know that the guides are there to assist in specific ways. Do not assume that they are the mouthpiece for the PWDs. Make eye contact and speak directly to the individual, not through their guide. It is rude to talk in the third person when the one concerned is present.  Most persons with visual impairment hear perfectly well, you don’t need to speak loudly or shout at them. If they ask you to guide them, offer your hand instead of grabbing theirs. And please, do not walk away from a person who has low vision after a conversation without indicating that you are doing so. Also, avoid questioning a person’s disability because disabilities are often invisible. When offering seats to the blind, put their hands on the back of the chair, allowing them to sit themselves.

Now let’s address our language as we interact with the PWDs. From this piece, you recognise that I am using “persons with visual impairment”, “the blind” and “a person who has low vision” instead of “blind people” and “visually challenged”. I also use phrases like “persons with hearing impairment” as opposed to words like “deaf, mute and dumb”.

It is also unacceptable to say “albino” but rather use “person with albinism”. Say “man with mental illness” or “woman with mental disorder” and not “mad, crazy, lunatic, retard, and insane”. We refer to them as “children with autism” and not “autistic children”. Call them “people with epilepsy” not “epileptic people”. Opt for “a wheelchair-user” instead of “lame or handicapped”. All these people and more are “persons with disabilities” not “persons living with disabilities” and definitely avoid referring to them as “disabled persons”.

This list is not exhaustive but it is to help us correct some of the mistakes we make in our daily interactions with the PWDs. Take the initiative to learn more. If you are ever in doubt when you meet the PWDs, do not assume. Ask them how they prefer to be called and treated. This is due to cultural differences and barriers.

Mr Mayamba is a human rights journalist [email protected]

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