Don’t ignore Oscar’s disability

2014-04-14 10:00

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In the defence of Oscar Pistorius, we wait for opinion to be led on the possible role of disability in the violence that ended Reeva Steenkamp’s life.

The shaping of any personality depends on a host of variables, of which disability is one. My comments here deal not with Oscar as an individual, but rather with an aggregated sense of what life in our society might be like for someone with a disability.

A national conversation on race and gender is ongoing, yet awareness of disability as a marker of discrimination, even oppression, is rare in our society.

The reality is that discrimination based on disability harms people deeply, and in a multitude of ways.

Basic rights to education, accessible healthcare, transport, habitable housing and simple participation in the life of the community are contravened daily for millions of citizens with disabilities.

This represents an aggravated, more acute version of the struggles of all who live with poverty and deprivation in our country.

These concerns are clearly far removed from the economically privileged life of a white male Olympic athlete, yet the prejudices that underpin this alarming discrimination remain for people with disabilities at any socioeconomic level.

People with disabilities have been hidden, excluded, institutionalised and ostracised from community life. As South Africans, we know all too well that separation incubates prejudice and hatred.

Visibly disabled South Africans from all walks of life describe treatment that is by turns fearful, hostile, patronising, avoidant and demeaning. Much of this treatment is based on fear and ignorance, but this makes it no less harmful.

Quite understandably, some individuals might grow into perceiving the world as hostile, and hence relate to it in a combative way. People who have been mistreated tend to expect further mistreatment. In our society, such expectations are never entirely inaccurate.

International research attention has recently moved to the high prevalence of disability-related hate crime. While we do not have statistics for our country, disability hate crime is probably widespread.

Such crime is at one extreme of a continuum that stretches to the pervasive, everyday demeaning of those seen as vulnerable.

It is an amplified, more conspicuous incidence of a steady drone of denigration which, for many people with visible bodily differences, is just another fact of life.

A view which, because of experiences of discrimination, sees the world as hostile dovetails closely with other parts of the ideology that surrounds us. Many men in our society feel a strong obligation to be physically dominant and present themselves as invulnerable protectors of others.

The corollary of this is often that men are afforded few skills or permissions to express emotional struggle in ways other than through force. Add to this the fact that a capitalist economy by its nature teaches that each must stake his or her own claim.

The logic in all of these spheres is “dominate in order to avoid being dominated”.

Because of stereotypes that associate disability with vulnerability, people with disabilities at times feel forced to undertake lifestyles aimed at disproving what others assume.

Our universal fears about human frailty mean we cherish media portrayals of people with disabilities who have “overcome adversity” by performing unlikely, even self-harming, feats.

These stories allay our shared fears about the inevitable breakdown of our bodies, but at the same time place impossible imperatives on some of those living with disabilities. For these people, it might feel that superhuman feats are required to gain acceptance.

Such a position harmonises with capitalist competition, the requirement of males to be dominant and invulnerable, and a tendency to see others as a threat to one’s interests. A bias toward perceiving the world as hostile primes one for retaliation.

Recognising these concerns does not justify wrongdoing, but to ignore their possible influence would be to ascribe the epidemic of deadly violence in our society to chance personal foibles.

Our history and our present are bathed in violence; we are forged in it. Consequently, the vulnerable in our society are often treated sadistically.

To disregard this context, which is the backdrop to all acts of violence, would be to eschew the understanding which is the first step toward change.

Dr Watermeyer is a disabled (partially sighted) clinical psychologist

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