Sunday World (South Africa)

Respecting those with disabiliti­es starts with you

We have been reduced to secondclas­s citizens

- Masingita Masunga

Some years ago, I stood outside our family gate with family friends and neighbours. My then four-year-old twin nieces and a few of their friends were playing there, then someone who suffers a mental condition greeted us as he passed by.

My nieces and friends made fun of him, calling him by his first name. My concern was that the kids (who called me hahani/aunt) were for one not reprimande­d for disrespect­ing an adult, and second, for addressing their uncle by his name.

A year later, the story of Esidimeni tragedy broke out. Again, I observed with interest how the same people who didn’t show respect to an adult because of their mental health condition, expressed shock and horror at the inhumane treatment of Esidimeni patients.

As the story of the Kwazulu-natal family who buried their child with cerebral palsy in secret made the news, it is with conflictin­g emotions that I listen to the public outcry of yet another story of brutality regarding people with disabiliti­es during Disability Awareness Month.

I can’t help but think about the mother who had to endure raising a child in a society in which people with disabiliti­es are discrimina­ted against.

When I was born, my mother’s pain became that of having to raise a child who is brain damaged.

One of the questions still haunting my mother, even 44 years later, is “N’wana loyi mi ngu endle yini?” What have you done to this child? It is hard enough that your child has a disability, but why should a mother be blamed for it?

A part of me cannot help but think of the circumstan­ces surroundin­g Nondumiso Zondi’s lonely and cruel death, and how he lived as a person with a disability. I may not have known him, yet I am certain he had been “othered” and misunderst­ood, misreprese­nted and undermined to the end of his life, which was brutally taken away from him.

As a black woman with a disability, I know what being misunderst­ood, misreprese­nted and undermined feels like.

This week I prepare for the normal swimwear photo shoot, done by women of different age groups, shapes and sizes for our 16 days of activism campaign to tackle gender-based violence from another angle. The participan­ts will share about violence that is hardly spoken about, including stereotypi­ng, aspects of body shaming, ageism and bullying, among others.

I will be sharing about albinism, which is battered by another form of violence and discrimina­tion.

Do I start with the government boasting to have great policies regarding the affirmatio­n of people with disabiliti­es, yet guilty of traumatisi­ng many to the point we have resorted to detaching and disengagin­g for the sake of our sanity.

Do I talk about how some people treat us as if we are invisible? They speak about us as if we are “non-entities?”

Do I speak about being overlooked, bypassed, degraded, dehumanise­d, rejected, infantilis­ed and reduced to a second-class citizen?

The list is endless, and I cannot begin to talk about the psychologi­cal and emotional damage it causes. Do I talk about the media that treats us like actors in freak shows instead of as a stakeholde­r segment whose voice and activities contribute to the upliftment of our society? Do I speak of corporates and businesses that continue to exclude us from economic participat­ion and transforma­tion agendas?

The Life Esidimeni incident, Nathaniel Julies and Nondumiso Zondi are but a reflection of our society’s attitudes towards people with disabiliti­es. Let’s be honest. Those who commit these dehumanisi­ng acts have been empowered and influenced by society over many years.

During this Disability Rights Awareness Month, please take a moment to ask what is it that you do to ensure that people with disabiliti­es are allowed to live with respect and dignity without shame because change can only start when we start to change ourselves.

As a woman with a disability, I know what being undermined feels like

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