Saturday, January 23, 2021

How Botswana’s institutionalised ableism disables people with disabilities

In Botswana disability is a very sensitive subjects. Most switched on Batswana know they can not mention the phrase “ disabled people” in polite company lest they run foul of  the easily triggered language police.

The acceptable politically correct phrase is “ people with disability.”  Ironically, this language policing suggests  there is something shameful about disability; or that we can’t talk about it candidly and directly unless we air brush it to make it cute, pretty and acceptable. This has framed disability as an affliction and disabled people  as tragic figures whom society should pity and protect, rather than people who are being disabled by a world that is not equipped to allow them to participate as equals and flourish through their own steam.

A number of Batswana social scientists however agree that contrary to what many might think, disability does not mean a poor quality of life, it is the negative attitudes of society and the lack of accessibility within the community that are the real tragedy.

Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “it is assumed that disabled people cannot have a good “quality of life”. It promotes the assumption that people with disabilities will not be able to have a family, get a good job or take on responsibilities. The focus still remains continually on the person’s impairment rather than on the person’s abilities. People with disabilities are capable of participating fully in community life just like their non-disabled peers. The challenge is to focus on their abilities not on their limitations. this stereotype tends to mean that people with disabilities are to be pitied as they spend their whole life depending and needing other people’s help. Traditionally this stereotype was used by charities in order to raise funds. Also, traditionally, people with disabilities have always been associated to witch craft. Many people feel that disability is a sign of ill omen to be feared. This sometimes explains why a lot of hatred, suspicion and violence is associated with disability. They are seen as a menace to others, to themselves and to their community. This is especially true of people with mental disabilities. People with disabilities are consumed by an incessant and inevitable rage and anger at their loss and at those who are not disabled. Those with mental disabilities lack the moral sense that would restrain them from hurting others. All these misconceptions hold people back from interacting normally with disabled people,”

Dr Ntshwarang’s sentiments are shared by Kgomotso Jongman, founder of Jo’Speaks in Gaborone who pointed out that, “the misconceptions about disability are common and have been there for a long time. These incorrect assumptions are often triggered by fear, lack of understanding and or prejudice. People with disabilities are special and should be treated differently. The label of ‘special’ in reference to a person with a disability does not convey equality like people think. A lot of people tend to also view people with disabilities as a one-dimensional group who have all the same needs, interests and opinions. People with disabilities reflect the same diversity that exists in the rest of society including varying social, economic, cultural, family and educational characteristics. The viewpoints expressed by an individual with a disability are not representative of those of all people with disabilities. “

According to Botswana’s societal rule of thumb, the burden of disability is unending; life with a disabled person is a life of constant sorrow and agony and that the able-bodied stand under a continual obligation to help them. People with disabilities and their families are the most perfect objects of charity and their  role is to inspire benevolence in others, to awaken feelings of kindness and generosity. Unfortunately,  Stereotypes play an important role in ableism, and reinforce prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behavior. One stereotype is that the disabled person is as helpless victim. The disability is seen as dominating the person’s life and identity, and it is assumed that they wish for their disability to be cured. Difficulties around access are attributed to personal characteristics rather than legitimate accessibility limitations in the community. Ableism can be conscious or unconscious, and may show up in different ways depending on the type of disability in question. When it comes to mental illness disabilities, there are plenty of stereotypes that come into play with certain ableist phrases such as “you seem normal” and “everyone experiences that.”

Certain types of disabilities are more stigmatized than others due to the stereotypes associated with them. People with schizophrenia for example or drug addictions largely experience particularly negative attitudes from others based on beliefs about dangerous, anti-social behaviour or risk. People with addictions also experience particularly negative behaviour because of assumptions about how much they are personally responsible for their disability and assumptions about their involvement with crime. This extreme stigma causes people to be afraid to disclose their disability to others. Such negative attitudes can also lead to harassment towards people with psycho-social disabilities in the form of negative comments, social isolation and unwanted conduct (including mental health profiling) from employers, landlords, co-workers or service providers.

Sadly, there is a common and disturbing attitude that society holds about people with serious disabilities, there is a false belief system that the dreams, aspirations and desires of an “able-bodied” person change the minute they become sick or disabled. Our society devalues a person with a disability and assumes that they could not possibly want the same things as an able-bodied person. People with disabilities work, have college degrees, are married, have children, live in and own their homes some even go to bars on occasion to have a drink. The individual model of disability has negatively affected the way persons with disabilities are treated in their communities, at job sites (for those who are fortunate to be employed), and in educational backdrop. This model sees people with disabilities as patients or sick people.

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