Every year on 3 December the world commemorates World Disability Day. This year marks the 23rd anniversary of the commemoration and although it has been observed for two decades, Zimbabweans as a whole are still not aware of issues people living with disabilities face. According to the United Nations, ‘The Day works to promote action to raise awareness about disability issues and draw attention to the benefits of an inclusive and accessible society for all.’
Sexual and reproductive rights of women living with disabilities are compromised health care workers who are either ignorant or pretend to be ignorant. Their everyday reality is a life of social isolation and discrimination In spaces where issues facing women are addressed, women with disabilities are invisible:
“When we speak of women’s rights, gender equality, women’s empowerment, gender-based violence and other issues affecting women, women with disabilities are often excluded. For example, when we fundraise to buy sanitary wear for the girl child, do we ever think of the girl child with a disability or she is not affected by such matters? When we advocate for the education of the girl child, do we also consider the girl child with a disability or she does exist? When we speak up against violence towards women, are women with disabilities included or is it that they don’t suffer from such issues?” Being a Zimbabwean Woman With a Disability”- Coleen Chifamba
The prejudicial treatment of people with disabilities is just as bad as racial or economic prejudice. People living with disabilities must not be treated as a separate class of people. You have talents and aspirations, hopes and dreams and so does a person living with a disability. You have a desire to work and achieve something meaningful with your life and a person living with a disability is no different. Creating an inclusive and accessible for all begins with us being made aware of the challenges of living with a disability and the need to adapt our environment to address these.
Some of the challenges are huge and must be tackled at a national and international. Others are small every day issues that can easily be addressed if we prioritise them. Here are some every day challenges people with disabilities face:
Accessing government buildings
When you are not able to use your your legs, something as simple as applying for identity card, paying your water bill and even going to the police station takes on a whole new dimension. Most government buildings are accessed by taking the stairs and only a few provide ramps for wheelchair access. Consider buildings with multiple floors that used to be reached using an elevator which has since been abandoned for lack of maintenance. Imagine having to battle to go up to the first, fifth, tenth floor on your crutches.
Counting your change
What do you do when the cashier at the supermarket processes your payment and hands you a receipt and some change? You read what the receipt against what you have in your plastic bag and the money you have in your hands. You know you have a $5 note in your hand because you can see it. Now imagine that you could not see, how would you know the difference between a $5 and a $10 note?
Using public transport
On my way from Harare to Johannesburg last month one of the passengers who got on to the bus was quadriplegic using an electric wheelchair. As I watched his assistant carry him off the chair and put him in his seat I realised that I have always taken it for granted that I can alight and disembark from the bus as I please. If I wake up in the middle of the night and need to use the on board toilet I just get up and do it and if my legs are aching I can take a quick walk up and down the aisle.
Using an elevator
When you step into an elevator you have to tell it where to go. If you want to go to the third floor but you punch the fifth then you are not going to get where you need to go. Unfortunately, many of our elevators around the country were installed eons ago, before buttons were inscribed with braille.
Dropping stuff on the floor.
Everyone has a morning routine and mine involves the long and laborious process of making me look presentable to the outside world. Inevitably, in the course of things what happens is that I will drop an earring or the cap of my lotion which will roll and hide itself under my bed or some other piece of furniture. Now imagine not being able to hear where your hairpin fell or feeling under the bed and not being able to see where it went.
Going to the cinema.
Have you ever wondered why the closed caption or subtitles option exists when you are watching a movie or series? For someone who is hearing impaired, being able to follow the dialogue and contextualise the scene you are watching can transform your whole entertainment experience.
Getting a date.
Despite progress that has been made in educating people about disability there are still some misconceptions that affect relationships. For example, if you are affected by cerebral palsy to the extent that you are confined to a wheelchair and it affects your movements, people assume that you are unable to think for yourself, as if your disability affects your intelligence. It is not uncommon for people to use baby talk or to assume that disabled people are brain-damaged. Sadly, most people do not have the patience to get to know the person beneath the outward appearance.
You walk into the local takeaway, the cashier greets you and you greet them back. You already know that you want to order chicken and chips so you place your order. The cashier will ask if you want any extras, a drink,extra chips, a salad? You will say no thank you or pick one of them. Firstly, how many of our shop attendants have been trained to deal with people whose speech or hearing is impaired? For anyone living with a disability, something as basic as ordering food is a chore.
Worshipping at church
Most churches have an overhead projector that shows the lyrics to the song being sung by the congregation. But I have never attended a church where there is a sign language interpreter during the sermon to cater to those who are deaf or hearing impaired. The irony is that many of these churches do charity work related to disability and yet are not inclusive of those living with disabilities amongst them.
Being woken by an alarm clock
If you are someone who struggles to wake up in the morning then an alarm clock set to ring at the same time every morning is a lifesaver. Most people who have no sense of hearing either have to rely on the vibration setting or, most of the time on someone waking them up.
How do you tell the difference between a friendly punch in the stomach and an attack? For people with sight it is simple – body language. Without the benefit of body language you have no cues for letting you know if the person who is touching you is a friend or a foe.
Physical affection and sex
Physical affection is a basic human need. Imagine not being able to wrap your arms around someone to give them a hug or to cradle a baby.
Grooming and personal hygiene
If you do not have a disability then that usually means that you have 100% autonomy over your body. If you decide that your under-arms or legs need a shave you do it. For a quadriplegic, a task as basic as brushing your teeth requires someone’s help. There is no such thing as a quick shower, a bath can take as long as two hours. You have to let people in to your personal space and most intimate parts of your body.
Using your laptop
Laptops and smartphones have become such an integral part of our everyday lives that we cannot imagine what it was like before we had them. But there are over 100,000 thousand blind people and even more visually impaired people in Zimbabwe who cannot access this technology because they cannot afford versions that have been adapted for their needs.
When we think of people with disabilities there is a temptation for us to feel pity towards them. This is not the point of this article. What is important is that we all realise that we live in a diverse society with people of differing abilities. This means that at the very basic level we must cater for all kinds of people. We must prioritise the needs of minorities who do not have a voice, people whose rights are not recognised. We all have that imperative.
Practically, this means that if you are an architect, you ought to design buildings that someone in a wheelchair can fully access, not just enter. If you are a filmmaker you ought to tell your story for someone who is hearing impaired to hear it. If you are a writer you ought to make an effort not just to translate your work into the spoken languages of Zimbabwe but in a language that the visually impaired can read.
We ought to know that living with a disability is not something people do for one day of the year. Every day ought to be World Disability Day.
Main image taken from www.karmanhealthcare.com