Most infrastructures in society simply do not cater for people with disabilities. They are often excluded either physically or socially as a result. This Disability Rights Awareness month we should pause and reflect both on how much the disability rights movement has come, and how far it still has to go.
“What do you think it means to be “normal”? asked Joana Bezerra, a Rhodes University post-doctoral fellow at a seminar about the history of the disability rights movement. She explained that there is a difference between normality, which is a question of frequency, and normativity, which is a question of value. What we consider normal depends on our context. “There’s a cultural aspect to how we see the world,” she said.
The idea of “normality” started between the 17th and 19th centuries in Europe. With a rise in population growth, those in power wanted to figure out how to control people. They started to study how people lived, and the study of statistics bloomed. So, too, did the idea of what it means to be “normal” in statistical terms, and what it means to be a deviation from it.
Initially, the Medical Model of disability used to focus on medical intervention. But the move to the Social Model in the 1970s saw a shift in how people viewed disability. It saw disability not primarily as a medical issue, but as a political issue. There is a difference between ‘impairment’, at the disturbance at the organ level, and ‘disability’, a disturbance at the level of the person. “The impairment is not the cause of disability. Disability is caused by our social context,” said Bezerra, “Is it our body impairments or social organisations that do not cater for the diversity of bodies?”
“What is considered normal will depend on the environment in which one lives.”
The Social Model focuses on empowerment and social participation. Bezerra explained that disability, and how it is perceived, affects identity. “When you have a label for people, this changes how those people see themselves,” she said. It also influences how they interact with the world. Through changing classifications and perceptions, “you go from exclusion to empowerment”.
In the 1970s, the Disability Rights Movement fought for equality of opportunity and rights for disabled persons. They targeted social oppression, cultural discourses and environmental barriers. It became recognised that negative associations regarding disabled peoples’ quality of life arose from negative stigmatization.
Bezerra explained that the movement made positive changes in the law. For example, the Universal Declaration of Rights constructed in 1948 included no rights for people with disabilities, but in 1975 the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons was adopted. Currently 40 out of the 189 UN nations also have anti-discrimination laws for disabled persons.
But there is still a long way to go for the disability rights movement. “There has been a change in ideas to policies, but what about reality?” said Bezerra.
Rhodes University student and a guest at the seminar, Mbongeni Shabanguto, is blind and a paraplegic. “Most buildings are inaccessible,” he said, “I used to use a wheelchair [but now use crutches to have better access to buildings].” Although Shabanguto allegedly included his disability and needs in his university application, the university allegedly told him that they do not have enough funds to meet all his needs.
“There has been a change in ideas to policies, but what about reality?”
Rhodes University cannot accommodate Shabanguto in current lecture formats. He predominantly studies from an office given to him by the university, and lecturers and tutors teach him there. But besides from in his res where people are very supportive, he does not feel included in the Rhodes University environment. “I do everything alone,” he said.
What is considered normal will depend on the environment in which one lives, as Bezerra said, “Very small changes to environments like cinemas, lectures venues [and so on] could help [people with disabilities feel more included and comfortable]. How do we go from text to actual actions?”
Photo: Disability Rights are Civil Rights. Photo source: Flickr.