The Power of Potential of People with Disabilities

Fadila Lagadien looks at the social, attitudinal and physical barriers that handicap a person with a disability, resulting in their unacknowledged and unused potential. Internet publication URL:

by Fadila Lagadien, 1993

To understand potential one needs to clearly understand or have a vision of what or with whom one is dealing. For example, to understand a dog's potential, one needs to know what a dog is, what it can and cannot do.

The same would apply to any human being including people with disabilities. Unfortunately, our society have negative stereotypes about people with disabilities. This shadows society's ability to focus on the capabilities of the person as they focus only on what the person cannot do. For this reason I would like to give a world wide accepted definition of "Disability" and "Handicap" as is defined by the WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION - GENEVA -1980.


"In the context of health experience, a disability is any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being".


"In the context of health experience, a handicap is a disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or a disability, that limits or prevents the fulfilment of a role that is normal (depending on age, sex and social and cultural factors) for that individual".


To recognise potential one has to realise that any inanimate object possesses potential by virtue of its position. An apple will fall, a ball will role or a helium filled balloon will rise.

Similarly a body that is impaired by a disability has the potential to do most things, if not all, that the body without an impairment, can do. I say body and not person because this is how a person with a disability is seen, just as an inanimate object. This potential to achieve is not acknowledged by society because we have been socialised into believing that anything less than "normal" is useless. And this might be true by evidence, for, if we look around us in our communities and try to identify people with disabilities who have realized their potential, we will find that they are few and far between.

Have you ever bothered to stop and ask why this is so? Maybe not! I will endeavour to show you some of the reasons for this non-realization of potential among people with disabilities.


Let us identify the barriers that handicap and prevent the realization of this potential:

  • People's ATTITUDE is THE most handicapping of the lot, for, if we lived in a society that had a healthy, open, non-stereotype attitude, the other barriers would be non-existent. (e.g. the law and policy makers are negative towards disability and this affects the whole society).

    Let us look at the other barriers and obstacles which handicap the person with a disability due to these stereotype attitudes.

  • It is the denial of access to equal opportunity, integration and self-representation through the lack of appropriate resources which is the result of bad and uninformed planning. This is also as a result of non-communication - verbal and non-verbal as well as written, e.g. no effort is made to communicate with people who are blind, hearing or speech impaired or severely disabled.
  • The lack of accessible public transport is maybe the next most handicapping of barriers. Without this resource, one cannot get much further than maybe your street corner. The majority of people with disabilities cannot afford their own transport due to the inadequate social securities and the lack of employment opportunities.
  • If you do manage to get to where you want to be, you are faced with, what I think is the third most handicapping barrier - physical access to the built environment. This is the unwritten sign of "NO ADMISSION", (almost like, "no dogs allowed".). How will we gain equal opportunity, realize integration and attain self-representation if we cannot get into educational and other institutions, libraries, places of recreation, churches, in fact most places?



These are but a few barriers which I have identified which to me are the most handicapping. From these stem numerous other barriers that are related to religion, culture and gender. What I want to do now, however, is to point out possible ways to eliminate these barriers.

It is the experience of people with disabilities the world over that the goodwill of society alone will not change much. And these changes that we are asking for are not privileges or favours - they are Basic Human Rights. It is unfortunate that we have to depend on legislation with punitive measures to enjoy our rights, but it is a known fact that POWER IS NOT RELINQUISHED WITHOUT DEMANDS - HENCE THE "DISABILITY RIGHTS CHARTER" OF DPSA AND LAWYERS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS.

The isolation that we experience in society is the result of social practises and tendencies which violates our Human Rights. Such violations are also entrenched in the law, for example, the government accepts responsibility for the establishment and running of mainstream schools, whereas the establishment of special schools are a responsibility of the communities, with the government only subsidising those schools that meet their criteria.


There are two available resources that immediately come to mind. The first of which is PERSON POWER. (What good is a disability rights charter when one can't event get out of bed in the morning.) Although legislation will not change attitudes, it will bring about an awareness of the existence of people with disabilities.

The most vital and readily available resource needed to realize this potential is Person Power in the form of Personal Assistance. Using person power to enable us to overcome some of these barriers will go a long way towards realizing the harnessed potential. Without a service such as Personal Assistance we literally and figuratively speaking have no hands and/or legs.

For those of us who are deaf, the lack of this service (interpreters) makes us live out our lives like in a silent movie. We see lips move, heads toss and turn, hands fly about unco-ordinated and don't have a clue what it's all about. Being part of the conversation is something about which we only dream. Interpreters in this instance will fall in the catagory of "personal assistance" as it will ensure access to equal opportunity, integration and self-representation for us. We will then not be left "out in the cold" any longer.

For the Blind person this assistance enables them to be part of their surroundings in that a chosen, trusted individual will guide them in things such as dress, "sight seeing" and drive them around. It also will mean a confidante to read private mail. High technology such as computers, voice synthesises, Braillers and scanners can quite adequately do the rest. So we see that person power is all-important for us to live holistic, fulfilling lives.

The second available resource is the DISABILITY RIGHTS MOVEMENT (DPSA) Disabled People South Africa.

The movement can be used as a resource to lobby for change in policy and legislation which in turn will lead to a way that will set free the power of potential within people with disabilities. The realization of this potential is the aim of this movement.

The demands that are reflected in this Disability Rights Charter are from people with disabilities themselves. It is the voice of the organized disabled community in South Africa.


We (DPSA) recognize that demanding rights don't go without responsibility and it is therefore accepted that it is the responsibility of the individual to go to school if there is one available and accessible to them.

We as the people with disabilities should be educated about our rights starting at the very basic point of self-awareness. We should gain an understanding about our disabilities (through accessible medical professionals), we should be able to talk about ourselves (through appropriate peer support services), we should be able to identify our needs (which no-one better than ourselves are aware of), we should be able to identify the barriers that we face as people with disabilities (by being aware of our Basic Human Rights). And this is one of the functions of the Disability Rights Charter of DPSA and LHR.

Only once these points are in place, can we go on to address issues surrounding disability and redress the inequalities within our communities and in our country!

Once we understand our situation then we will be able to police legislation in order to pressurise for enforcement. It is therefore the responsibility of each disabled individual to attain self-awareness to achieve their potential as it is the responsibility of the non-disabled community to appropriately make available enabling resources.

Fadila Lagadien
Disabled People South Africa