With the Paralympics in full swing, receiving far more media attention and public support than ever before, the topic of disability is talk of the town.
So when I heard about The Airport Companies South Africa (ACSA) Disability and Special Needs Expo and Conference (6-8 September 2012) on a popular radio station, of course I was intrigued. After some research, I noticed it was the first time I had heard about it in its eight years of existence.
For the Expo’s radio marketing campaign called “Wheelchair Day”, DJs were to spend a day in a wheelchair to better understand what it’s like to be disabled. They were then to communicate their experiences and “raise awareness”.
While listening closely, intrigue soon fell away to utter disappointment. What was clear was that the organisers (McNaughton & Associates Marketing Firm), like many South Africans still find it difficult to understand that the stigma of disability seeps and spreads into our daily lives, without us knowing it.
Essentially the DJs became marketing tools with a great deal of power and influence on their listenership’s opinions surrounding people with disabilities. Unfortunately the campaign was poorly developed with a lazy and unoriginal brief.
Very little background knowledge was communicated about the actual details of the expo or issues linked to disability as a whole.Instead, focus was on how hard the DJs found the experience; thus how much better their understanding now was.
Awareness shouldn't come at a price
Few people were told that the Disability and Special needs Expo had been consumed by a larger, more profitable in outcome, “Retirement Expo”. This subtly and offensively portrays South African’s with impairments in the same frame of reference as frail, vulnerable elderly folk. If lack of finances were the reason for this, as I was told, and inclusion was the goal why are exhibitors and vendors having to fork out R 1 500 - R1750 per square metre for stall space? Also bothersome is that the cost of a two day conference for the general public (non-NGO) is R 6270 per person.
Exploiting a good cause
If this Conference and Disability Expo was genuinely concerned with inclusion, accessibility to technology and promoting the rights of South Africans with disabilities, it would not be trying to exploit the very people it is supposed to be empowering.
Surely the nearly ten governmental and non-governmental partner organisations realise this too?
I seized the opportunity as a springboard to speak out about this when listeners were asked to phone in and comment and again later on Twitter. As a proud South African woman born with a muscle condition affecting my mobility, one could say that my 25 years of tackling the mainstream stereotypes and narrow-mindedness gives me a bit of “street cred” on the matter.
I’ve wrestled with people on an intellectual level and used humour as a tool to bash down expectations and prejudice my entire life. I attempted to do the same when addressing this Expo business. One of the arguments I received from a DJ’s fan was that “disabled people did not need to reflect on [or communicate] what it is like to be disabled”. Clearly I didn’t get that memo.
Many people may disagree and frown upon my critique. After all, “disabled people could be denied an expo entirely”. Well that’s not a strong argument and just doesn’t cut it as an excuse in 2012, I’m afraid.
No one should be told they’re lucky to be acknowledged or even considered by mainstream society. It’s offensive and ignorant. What is highlighted here, though, is a great flaw in how many South Africans continue to fail their friends, family and colleagues who have any sort of impairment.
Many still find it difficult and sometimes absurd to grasp that the stigma surrounding disability is ingrained into our daily lives and subconscious choices.
With disability still being handled like a taboo hot potato, further damage to the equality movement is being done.The majority of South Africans with disabilities are barely surviving on social grants and countless specialised schools have closed during this year alone because of outstanding subsidies.
Most children with disabilities in South Africa never receive the proper medical care and with the daily violence and abuse faced by many people with disabilities, who on earth are the organisers expecting to attend the event? Certainly not those who need it most.
“Raising awareness” is a start when done properly, but doesn’t always mean “good” is being done for a cause. When strategically and cleverly planned with the proper research and experience, it is undoubtedly an excellent method for advocating change. On the other hand it can be a window-dressing term, used when little effort to tackle real issues is intended.
Here’s food for thought.
Why was an accomplished, award-winning and well-known person with a disability not interviewed or included in the radio campaign for the expo? Andy Scott, Chaeli Mycroft and Masingita Masunga are just a few people I can name off the top of my head. The latter two are actually speaking at the ACSA Disability Expo. Why were these “experts” and role-models sidelined? Surely this would have strengthened the cause and attracted more support instead of merely raising praise for a rather superficial effort.
To put it simply: no one was really interested in tackling the real issues.
“Wheelchair Day” trivialised many people’s daily experiences and ignored those who do not have physical impairments. It is arrogant and ignorant to reduce the vast array of different impairments out there or the existence of a person with a disability to the narrow experience of being in a wheelchair all day.
The organisers, McNaughton & Associates Marketing Firm, should have known better or at least cared enough to engage with South Africans with disabilities in a less patronising and more inclusive way. It can be said that a great deal of power to spread prejudice and misunderstanding surrounding disability or combat these, rests with broadcasting media. One can only look at the LGBTI Rights Movement to see how media has assisted greatly in fighting stereotypes and stigma.
Getting it right
I most certainly think that we need to reassess the ways in which we view and speak about disability. Had the cause been gender related and men asked to dress as women in order to better understand their daily experiences of abuse and oppression, wouldn’t gender rights activists be justifiably outraged at a publicity stunt that trivialises experiences of women?
Examples of us not progressing in the disability rights movement can be seen not only in this poor marketing campaign and response to criticism, but in our medical and education institution failures.
It’s also evident in the lack of therapeutic and social support for children with impairments and their families. It is visible in many companies’ reluctance to employ candidates with impairments despite clear BBEE and labour legislation and in their fabrication of “fake employees”.
It is how we scold children for staring at someone and not explain extensively how people are different, but just the same as them. It’s in the very language we use daily.
Everyone loves stories of over-coming barriers and quickly grabs hold of these amazing people, places them on a pedestal and then expects them to be constant sources of positivity and inspiration to others. Truth is, you see, no one likes a person with a disability who complains. It distorts society’s expectations.
Us folk with disabilities are expected to accept charitable offerings from society, say “please” and “thank you” and then shut up. Should we choose to not work around the system quietly, rebel and voice our opposing views, then we’re pessimistic and offensive. You see, by voicing our opinions assertively, it forces people without disabilities to engage directly on a person to person level. It also means acknowledging prejudice and dealing with it. No one likes to do that!
As South Africans, we need to feel outraged that women with disabilities are statistically the most at-risk sector of society in terms of enduring abuse and sexual violence and yet little is done to empower and protect them. We need to face the reality that is public transport inaccessibility, the lacking number of good therapy programmes available to children and the violence faced by those dependant on disability grants.
Creating the right awareness
We then need to flood our television programs and radio shows – to inspire and educate - with news of the wonderful efforts and successes of non-profit organisations like The Chaeli Campaign. More attention needs to be given, not to understanding what it feels like to have a disability, but to the people who are succeeding in fighting for equality.
The Centre for Augmentative & Alternative Communication (AAC) and The Nkanyezi Stimulation Centre in Soweto are other examples of ordinary people on the frontlines of change.
Constant preference should be shown to messages that state assertively that having an impairment by no means disables a person. What truly “disables” us are the barriers of inaccessibility, stigma and public attitudes.
Sadly the truth is that mainstream South African society still has a problem with shedding the “ag shame” response to disability issues. It’s been deeply ingrained in us and we need to rid ourselves of it and FAST.
Goals should be not only assisting people with impairments to empower themselves, but to do it in the least patronising and intrusive manner possible. I’ve come across wonderfully kind people in my life who still failed to understand that they could not speak for people with disabilities (or any other marginalised group they proclaimed to help, for that matter). Not even parents, relatives and caregivers have the right to take away a person’s – even a child’s – complete agency.
All South Africans have a right to be treated not as an invalid or charity case, but as a fellow human being.
If we’re willing to truly discuss issues of disability (like other oppressive systems: racism, classism, sexism etc) in a less superficial manner, we’d find it easier to stop feeling sorry for people who perhaps do not want or need your sympathy and work on finding sustainable solutions.
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