What kind of a community lets a disabled child burn to death?

2016-04-16 18:01

Many years ago a fire broke out in an informal settlement in Khayelitsha. Almost all the shacks were burnt leaving many families homeless. Then as if things could not get worse, a disabled child burnt to death in the inferno. It is said that the only caregiver could not carry the child to a mall 5 minutes away from home. She had gone to the mall to buy groceries so carrying groceries and a child old enough to walk did not seem possible.

Without anyone to look after the child, she left the child all alone in a locked shack. Fire broke out, people tried in vain to get a few of their belongings out of their shacks, and the child helplessly burnt to death because people were on survival mode and not thinking about the whereabouts of their neighbours.

I still remember the look on people's faces when they realised that someone burnt to death in the fire after salvaging a few household items they could carry. People suddenly looked at the things they were carrying, looked at the inferno and thought about the disabled child burning to death in a locked shack.

Why did the caregiver not ask neighbours to look after the child for a few minutes while she went to buy groceries in the nearby mall? The answer is simple yet disturbing. Disabled people are to a great extent seen as a burden by many people. This is why thousands of disabled people are chained in Indonesia because they are seen as a burden by many.

My friend who worked in Human Resource Management for a multinational company perfectly illustrated this when she told me that her bosses would tell her to find a person with a "nice" disability when recruiting to comply with employment equity legislation. A nice disability means someone who can walk on their own and will not require alterations to buildings that are not accessible by wheelchair. So even when disabled people are able to look after themselves by finding work, they are still seen as a burden.

And in our communities disabled people are not really prioritised. It is as though they should vanish. Ignored by families, communities and authorities in many respects. It was only later on that the City of Cape Town established a unit in their housing office that deals specifically with disabled people in a bid to prioritise their accommodation needs. But many people do not know this because community leaders have other priorities.

When I arrived in Ireland I thought the country had a lot of disabled people after seeing them all over the place. Because I am not used to seeing disabled people living life like all other people. They are hidden in the shacks in Khayelitsha or huts in rural villages in South Africa. As a child I watched as school children made fun of MaNgcwangula's kids at school because they would not play with us. They'd much rather look after their disabled mother who only came out of the hut when it was time to withdraw her disability grant. She had no wheelchair so a wheelbarrow was the only way to transport her.

Perhaps we are socialised into seeing disabled people as a burden. Ubuntu values abandoned when we ridicule people who look after disabled people or ridicule disabled people themselves by making fun of the way they talk and walk. Even more disturbing is when those who look after their disabled relatives are ostracised because the only reason they could possibly love  and  care for a disabled person is for their disability grant. Like they are to be abandoned and not looked after.

This leads me to wonder what values define our society that treats people like that. How did we get here? Some would even go as far as questioning the use of the word disabled instead of differently abled, or physically challenged. Something in our values definitely needs to change.

Note my ignorance when there is no mention of the child's name, sex, or age. Perhaps because I lived in a community where disabled people are identified by their disability. They are called la mfama, esasithulu, esasiqhwala and so on.

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