By Phitalis Were Masakhwe, 2005-11-29
Twelve years ago the United Nations (UN) General Assembly declared 3rd of December as International Day for people with Disabilities. This was a build up to earlier initiatives by the UN to get the international community to recognize and include people with disability in all spheres of life. Such initiatives included, but not limited to, the International year of Disabled, the UN Decade of Disabled People, which culminated into the World Program of Action for disabled people (1992) and the UN Standard rules on equalization of opportunities for people with disabilities (1993).
So what is the whole hullabaloo about the UN day for disabled people? This day was set aside, I hope, with the genuine intention to mobilize and galvanize the world to do a serious soul searching about the needs, aspiration and concerns of the over 600m people with disabilities, worldwide. It was also supposed to create awareness about their issues with a view to spontaneously fashion concrete community, national and international programs to give them a new lease of life.
By the way, what are these issues? Disabled people suffer disproportionately from exclusion and discrimination even in their own homes. They rarely go to school because their parents, many a times are under illusion that taking them to school is a risky investment. Some school head teachers imagine that enrolling children with disabilities in their schools will “spread” disabilities to other children. They believe that disability is contagious. Children, who suffer from epilepsy, though not a disability in itself, but a condition that can lead to one, know what I am talking about.
It is now globally acknowledged that women are disadvantaged in many respects. Disabled women have a different story all together. According to UNESCO, only one in six, of disabled women in developing countries get a chance to go to school. Of course marriage for majority of them is “a taboo” especially in Africa, where men expect a “perfect woman” as one who is able to carry fire wood and water and babies from as far as you can imagine.
But, in this fast changing world one does not have to physically do these household chores to be considered a true woman! Today, career visually impaired women hire sighted people to work for them in their farms and homes. We have seen them work and bring piped water to their households and communities. We have seen employed people with disabilities bring hope and development to their families and communities. But, this is possible only if we give them a chance and opportunity! We have to invest in them.
We must review our definition and perception of “beautiful and perfect human being” All human beings, the disabled included are beautiful, handsome and perfect in their own ways. Infact the holy book, the bible unequivocally says that we were all made in the image and likeness of God. It does not say that those with disabilities were made from the image of a warthog or monkey, you know! I think that God has a dual image and likeness of both disabled and non disabled, theologians may not agree with this and they don’t have to, but that is the truth according to a branch of philosophy called logic! That is why I don’t believe that those with disabilities should be paraded in public in the so called “miracle crusades and healings”.
After all God made them in his own image and likeness and he knows that they are as complete human beings as they can be, their impairments notwithstanding! What kind of power or magic touch, therefore can a frail fellow human being in the name of evangelist have over that of God to make disabled people feel that they are less or incomplete people in need of excessive prayers and healing?
The disabled should be confident and proud of whom they are and not allow half baked and suspicious characters in the name of preachers to play around with their psychology. This is partly to blame for the abysmally low sense of self esteem among the majority of people with disabilities. Well, lets reserve disability and theology for a another day.
In conflicts and war situations, disabled people are left to die and for those who survive, your guess is as good as mine as to what happens to them in refugee camps. And the war itself, accidents, terrorism, disease burden, genetic malfunctioning, land mines, earthquakes and tsunamis continue to multiply their numbers, anyway.
But the beauty about many of these causes of disability is that they are exceptionally generous; they discriminate against no one. That is why this issue is not about “them and us” We are all in this boat and the earlier the world comes to that realization the better!
No wonder the former UN Secretary- General Peres De Cuer, described disability as “a silent emergency in our time.” A ticking time bomb, so to speak. His idea was that we should treat disability and the concerns of disabled people with the urgency and seriousness that they deserve. Are we doing that?
Back to the day of the disabled December 3rd. Has the day served its purpose, over the 12 years it has been commemorated? Was it set aside to play public relations with disabled people and hence postpone their issues? If not what can we show for it? On this day, Governments all over the world will say niceties and promise all manner of promises to disabled people only to forget them as soon as they leave that podium. Speeches will take the tone like, “my government is fully committed to the welfare of disabled people. Disabled people are important members of our society. We will take serous measures to make ensure that nobody hides disabled children. We will ensure that all disabled people get education, training and employment.”
Disabled people listening will either cheer or jeer depending on their level of civic consciousness. That will be all! They will then wait for another year and the choruses will be the same. How I wish we could march this rhetoric with concrete, albeit small actions. The world will be far much better place for the disabled to live.
What about Non Governmental Organizations NGOs, or are they called civil society or faith based organizations, to use their own terminologies? What of donors or development partners? They will say? “We are committed to mainstreaming people with disabilities in all spheres of our development cooperation and programs,” what ever that means! I think by mainstreaming they simply want to say they include and integrate disabled people in their work. But is that the case?
Interestingly, all NGOs and donors have one thing in common, they all say, that they are “committed” to observance of human rights of “all” people and to poverty eradication as expressed in Millennium Development Goals and similar grand pro-poor schemes. A serious critique of these international landmark development blue prints, however reveal a conspicuous absence of disabled people. May be we need reminding that according to the World Bank, one out of every six absolutely poor, has one form of disability or the other? Will they realize these key targets without including over 80 million people with disability in Africa, and 600 million globally? Well they may, for miracles never ends!
It does not need a nuclear physicist to realize that the current international development thinking, cooperation, planning and execution is unfair and dishonest to those with disabilities. It largely excludes them. I wish to submit that this is development apartheid and hypocrisy to say the least!
Take a walk to many of the offices of governments, NGOs, development partners and even the private sector. Do they have functioning disability affirming policies? If they have, are their offices accessible to those with disability? And how accessible are their information or what is commonly referred to as information, education and communication IEC materials to people with various communication needs?
How many employees with disability do they have and in what positions? Are they just messengers and telephone operators or do they have a few of them in decision making positions. If development partners are genuine and truly committed to a fair and just world, are disability and the concerns of people with disabilities one of the conditionality in their bilateral development and technical co-operation and disbursement of development assistance?
Am aware that many of them have flowery statements on disability equality, but that is as far as they go! Are the disabled visible and active participants in their programs, no! High sounding statements and declarations are good music to the ears, but they will never put foot on the table, period!
What mechanisms do governments, development partners and NGOs have for disability inclusion, monitoring and auditing of the same? In terms of liquid money, how much of their overall budgets are set aside for this cause? For that is the only way we can measure their true commitment, otherwise the rest is mere propaganda. For we shall know them by their actions, works or is fruits!
Ladies and gentlemen, as we “celebrate” yet, another day for people with disability, let’s remember that disability is a serious agenda of not just development and human rights, but international peace and security, as well. If we lock out thousands upon thousands of young men and women with disabilities from education, training and employment they will become a burden to us economically. They may also resort to other undignified and anti-social means of survival.
Socially, morally and intellectually, it is wrong to exclude one in ten of the world’s population from mainstream social, economic and political life. Always remember that the apartheid regime tried to block out the black majority in South Africa, but with devastating consequences. We should learn from history.
Don’t forget for a moment that extreme poverty, discrimination, exclusion and hopelessness that characterize the situation and lives of majority of disabled people, especially in developing countries, is a powerful ingredient and recipe for discontent and chaos. As the French states man and former President, Francois Mitterrand once said, “If we buy into the illusion that we can make this world habitable for only a few, we will make it inhabitable all together.” Say yes to the disabled!
The writer is a Sociologist, has a physical disability and is a regular commentator on Disability and development. He is also a member of the Kenya National Council for People with Disabilities. firstname.lastname@example.org
Phitalis Were Masakhwe
International Advisor Disability - Rights and Advocacy
Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Mob: +93(0)79 848026
House # 656, Malik Yaar Watt, Near the Herati Mosque, Shahre-e-Now, Kabul Afghanistan
NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US, SAY YES TO THE DISABLED!