Writer: Raven Benny

It is now generally accepted around the globe that disability is a social construct and most of its effects are inflicted on people by the social environment. A person is disabled if the world at large will not take into account their physical, sensory or mental differences. Most of the day-to-day problems that people with disabilities face are caused by the fact that they live in a hostile, disabling world which is largely designed to suit able-bodied people. It is the attitude, belief and cultural background of society that have an impact on how people with disabilities are treated. In this article I want to express my opinion on some harmful beliefs of society on people with disabilities, the consequences and the implications thereof as well as what has been done to get rid of this harmful beliefs.

According to the World Health Organization more than a billion people, which is about 15% of the world’s population, have some form of disability. In South Africa is the prevalence rate according to Stats SA, using the Washington Group Model, estimated at an impairment prevalence of 7.5% derived from the 2011 National Census. In English it means that about 3.89million people live with some form of disability in South Africa. Stats SA’s 2007 Community Survey shows that persons with disabilities are among the poorest of the poor, while people living in poverty are more at risk than others of acquiring a disability and are commonly denied their rights.  Persons with disabilities face different levels of discrimination and exclusion–in particular, women and girls with disabilities may face double discrimination based on both disability and gender.

Persons with disabilities who are subjected to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination thus experience great marginalization, and failure to address discrimination against them will negate the aspiration of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that “no one will be left behind”.  So with this much disabled people and this much discrimination is their much impact on the beliefs and attitude that societies have formed about people with disabilities. It is a commonly held attitude that people with disability are less able to contribute to society, engage in paid employment, or participate in the community. This attitude is very quickly changed into a belief and used to suppress the abilities and potential of people with disabilities.

In many of our communities are persons with disabilities treated with no respect or dignity. It is being seen as something sinister and the family members of persons with disabilities are ousted and isolated from society. It was worse in the earlier years and this impacted negatively on the development and general well-being of both the person with a disability as well as their families. Especially disabled women were exposed to violence and discrimination but with some proactive NGO’s, changing attitudes and more advanced legislation in place has these type of abuse diminished but it’s not eradicated completely yet. There is still some work to be done to improve the image of disability in order for the attitude of society to change. More examples of positive beliefs are needed to improve the image of disability in our own communities.

An example of a positive belief is portrayed by the founder of the Special Olympics. Eunice Kennedy Shriver believed that people with intellectual disabilities were more capable than commonly believed, and deserving of the same opportunities and experiences as others. So, in 1962, she invited 35 boys and girls with intellectual disabilities to a day camp in Maryland, USA, to explore their capabilities in a variety of sports and physical activities. That’s how the Special Olympics started. And I feel that the physical abilities of anyone can be used to promote unity. People love supporting a winner and if our own people with disabilities are seen as productive members of society, their differences can be understood, tolerated and celebrated. And every member of society can join in and be part of. Although the Special Olympics’ main focus is sporting activities, it also runs an inclusive health program, an awareness program for young people without disabilities, a leadership program for athletes, an inclusive sports program, and an Early Childhood Development program for young athletes and finally a family support network.

I am not of the opinion that all people with disabilities will qualify for the Special Olympics but as an example can everyone be given the opportunity to improve their health and the image of their disability by raising awareness of the abilities and suppressing the negative beliefs. The measures, which should be tailored to address the specific nature of harmful beliefs and practices, include:
empowering persons with disabilities; developing community-based sensitization and education campaigns; implementing school-based disability rights awareness programmes; strengthening documentation and reporting on human rights violations against persons with disabilities that are rooted in stigma and customary beliefs and by undertaking law and policy reform efforts to combat stigma.



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