Changing Attitudes Towards Disability in Africa

Naddy Zialor taking his oath at the National Assembly

We are all an accident or misfortune away from incapacitation! Worldwide, the most common disability in people under the age of 50 is depression, followed by hearing disorders and visual impairments.

Welcome to the world of many.

WHO records show that over a billion persons in the world have some form of disability. Depression is a common mental disorder with about 264 million persons suffering significant difficulties in functioning due to various forms of depression. A condition so exhausting, it numbs the mind and demobilises the senses. 

We are, at our finest when our faculties work at best and in sync. Consider, however, that sometimes, for no reason of physical exhaustion, breathing could become difficult or problematic…an overwhelming feeling of despair or inadequacy hits hard due to the many vicissitudes of life – heartbreaks, out of work, emotional meltdown, burnouts et cetera.

In no time, pessimism sets in with a despondent lack of activity sucking every modicum of energy in you. At such times, the teeth of suicidal impulses may flash here and there, making the victim less beneficial to himself or society.

Having restricted mental or physical functioning as a consequence of injury or illnesses are easily noticeable in the forms of blindness, amputation, paraplegia, spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and other forms of disabilities, mental and emotional forms of disabilities have more persons in its net.

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From those suffering multiple traumas to those who wake up daily distraught –apologising, rationalising, explaining their existence or shortcomings to others between hysteria or through self-talk.

They struggle with private internal dialogues through faint whispers or silent incoherent thoughts that are so incapacitating, they feel trapped.  

Often used to denote physical impairment, cognitive impairment, sensory damage, intellectual impairment, mental illness, and various types of chronic diseases, disability may be present from birth or occur during a person’s lifetime.

People with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to deficiencies in health care services. They may experience greater vulnerability to secondary conditions, co-morbid conditions, age-related difficulties. Many have been found to engage in risky health behaviours making them more susceptible to premature death.

They are more prone to ulcers, fragility in bones, UTIs, co-morbid conditions, premature ageing, and higher rates and risks of engaging in unhealthy lifestyle due to physical or mental inactivity. People with mental health disorders and intellectual impairments have been shown to have a lower life expectancy.

Recent statistics show that people with disabilities often receive less education and have disadvantaged living conditions. These may include insufficient food, lack of access to safe water, poor housing, and sanitation.

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This exposes disabled individuals to the highest risks for infectious and non-infectious diseases.

Over time, due to negative attitudes and misunderstanding about the significance of their handicapping conditions, disabled persons have been stigmatised and underrepresented.  

Negative attitudes revolving around children with disabilities have seen many denied of education or employment especially in developing nations of the world.

Worthy of note is the establishment of the African Rehabilitation Institute (ARI)established in 1988 in Harare. A dedicated agency of the AU which coordinates and reports on all matters relating to disability in Africa.

Since then, heads of government, civil liberties organisations, NGOs, continue to partner with ARI. These bodies include Pan African Federation of Disabled Persons (PAFOD), the African Union of the Blind (AFUB), and other regional organisations of persons with disabilities. 

Disability inclusion and catalysation of positive actions must clear the harmful perceptions which suggest that disabilities were linked to some divine curses or family sins. Many are perceived as serving penalties due to gross disobedience to God’s commandments; ancestral violation of societal norms or other alleged offenses against gods of the land; village witches and wizards; inherited curses from societal taboos like ‘arguing and fighting with the elders’; possession by evil spirits among others.

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In October, 32-year-old Naddy Zialor made history as the first Seychellois living with a disability to be sworn into the country’s National Assembly.  Zialor was born with cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that affects movement and causes involuntary spasms. This is one of such bold steps towards inclusivity.

These absurd assumptions and perceptions are unreliable and mostly preposterous as they make access to support more difficult for victims of disability. Most persons living with disabilities need medical rehabilitation or some forms of assistive devices like hearing aids, prostheses, and wheelchairs.

As we mark the international day of persons with disabilities, we must uphold and domesticate conventions on the rights of persons with disabilities, continue to create programs to overcome these perceptions in order to promote, protect the vulnerable group. 

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