Beyond the plastic girl

2011-10-10 00:00

THE Disabled Peoples’ International Eighth World Assembly starts today in Durban.

Probably one of the most daunting challenges facing people living with disabilities are the stereotypes and misperceptions regarding disability that pervade society today.

These range from the “ag, shame” attitude that is epitomised in the image of the plastic girl with her blue dress and harness on her leg that one often sees in stores collecting money for children with cerebral palsy, to the image of the super-hero who is portrayed as “overcoming enormous obstacles to triumph­ over adversity in spectacular ways”.

But perhaps one of the most harmful stereotypes is found in the numerous examples that portray disability in terms of monsters, evil or punishment. The message sent is, as in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, that people living with disabilities are misfits to society­ — not fully human.

The Bible is not helpful in this regard. Religion has done more than its share in instilling and reinforcing negative stereotypes regarding disability.

For instance in Leviticus 21:16-23, several of the conditions that today may be classified as “disabled” are described in terms of the Hebrew word for “blemish” that aligns with the idea that those who suffer from some sort of ailment or disability are to be shut out of society, precluded from bringing sacrifices or belonging to the priestly class.

But probably most disturbing is the way in which disability is used as a curse in the biblical traditions. In Deuteronomy 28:28-29 it is said that God will punish the transgressor with madness and confusion of mind so that he or she will be like a blind person in the dark. This text is representative of the numerous texts in the Hebrew Bible that draw a link between disability and sin, viewing disability as a punishment by God.

At a conference on theology, disability and human dignity hosted by Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Theology in conjunction with the Faculty of Health Sciences’ Centre for Rehabilitation Studies earlier this year, these stereotypes were challenged. The conference formed part of the Faculty of Theology’s Focus on the Promotion of Human Dignity, which forms part of the University’s Hope Project, a campus-wide initiative for tackling major societal problems.

At the conference, harmful theological­ ideas such as those mentioned above were reframed as we sought to find new ways to talk about God and about human beings who are created in the image of God.

One moment that stood out for me is when Rachel Kachaje, a deputy­ chairperson of Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI), proclaimed that she does not believe that her disability is a curse, punishment or a mistake, but that she, in her wheelchair, reflects the glory of God.

This reminded me of the story in John 11 where one already sees a radical change in the way in which the Bible speaks about disability. When the people asked Jesus­ if it was due to his sins that the man before them was born blind, Jesus responded by saying that it is neither­ his own nor his parents’ fault, but rather for the glory of God.

Another instance where negative perceptions were challenged was the case of a deaf theological student, who in response to a speaker’s comment that “one has to accept that the blind cannot see, the deaf cannot sing and the cripple­ cannot dance”, stood up to say that the deaf community could sing. That evening at the conference dinner, he and his fellow classmates proved this point by singing beautifully a song they had written themselves.

These examples are but a few of the rich first-person narratives that we have heard at the conferences in Stellenbosch and Wor-cester. These stories have in common that they move the attention away from people’s disabilities to their capabilities.

Time and again, the message was: do not think of me as a person in need of help or a monster or a superhero, but see me as a human being who can contribute to society.

To focus on the person’s capabilities and contributions to society changes the way we think about people with disabilities. Kachaje, who worked as a secretary at a big bank in Malawi before devoting her all her time to disability issues, said that people with disabilities are good workers. Tongue- in-the-cheek she said that, in her case, she could not roam the halls and go to the bathroom every 10 minutes. So she sat in her wheelchair and did her work. This work ethic resulted in her being honoured­ as the best secretary in the bank and goes to show that people with disabilities can make a wonderful contribution in the workplace. And yet, companies would rather pay penalties than employ people with disabilities.

The key in breaking down stereotypes­ is to befriend people with disabilities. It is interesting that many of the able-bodied speakers who have been converted to the cause of disability, had all had intimate contact with someone who is disabled — a child, a spouse, a good friend. To look beyond the disability and to see truly the face of the other is what changes people. For when the blind, the deaf and the physically and mentally challenged become people who are incidentally also blind, deaf or physically or mentally challenged, one is more likely to change the world we live in.


• Juliana Claassens is associate professor of Old Testament in the Department of Old and New Testament at Stellenbosch University. She was the organiser of the Theology, Disability and Human Dignity Conference at the university.

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