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Dispensing Disability Awareness

By Jeremy Opperman

What is disability? Is it something associated with an individual's afflictions only? Or is it rather to do with the interrelationship between people with disabilities and society? In fact, can we tell the difference between barriers and disabilities?

Why is disability such a paradox, sparking such attention and reticence at the same time? The answer is that not nearly enough is known about disability to make informed decisions that might affect and implicate it. 

This in itself shouldn't be surprising, if we reflect on how few people have actually worked with a person with a disability. Or how few people attended school or university with learners with disabilities. As these are the most socially interactive times of our lives, where else are we likely to meet, interact with and know people with disabilities? 

In my own country of South Africa, despite representing a not inconsiderable segment of the population, no less than 10-15 percent, disability is still regarded as something of an oddity and novelty in the commercial sector. 

The Brussels Sprouts of Equity

The reality is that over 95 percent of persons with disabilities are unemployed in South Africa. At the same time the overwhelming majority of children with disabilities attend "special needs schools" and, sadly, a staggeringly high percentage of children with disabilities still remain unaccounted for. 

As a net result, this "out of sight" existence of persons with disabilities has led to a largely "out of mind" attitude amongst able-bodied people, resulting in wholesale ignorance and often a lack of consideration of what is in fact a perfectly natural phenomenon. Instead, a whole subculture of myth and stereotype and simplification surround and replace the facts and truth.

This can be illustrated by my own experience after graduating from university, to be faced with society's very narrow perception of employment opportunities for any person with a disability. Fortunately, only being visually impaired and not having to overcome traditional physical barriers, these "opportunities" did exist . . . in the form of an albeit limited variety of telephony, switchboard and reception positions. Eighteen years later, even in our highly diversity- and equity-conscious country, and despite improved legislation, disability is still like the Brussels sprouts of equity, as I like to call it: the stuff you leave till last on your plate and, if you can get away with it, you will leave altogether.

The undeniable possibility that disability could either gradually or instantly affect anyone's lives or the lives of those near them is seldom appreciated. This makes disability uniquely personal in diversity terms. It is impossible for a man, for instance, to truly relate to experiences of a woman; or for a white person in South Africa to truly relate to the experiences of a black South African growing up under apartheid. However, it should be perfectly feasible for either group to relate to disability, since it could visit anyone at any time. 

I cannot help but feel that if this were appreciated more, much of the resistance to disability rights would be overcome. It is significant to point out that less than 20 percent of people with disabilities are born with their disabilities and that over 80 percent acquire their disabilities later in life. 

As purveyors of disability awareness, experience has shown us that to achieve disability confidence in recipients of training requires an uncomplicated but structured approach which, in this order, includes breaking emotional, intellectual and practical barriers. 

A core aspect of our training sessions is a visualization exercise in which delegates visualize themselves living and working with a particular disability: waking, washing, dressing, eating, arriving at work, finding one's way to the workstation, etc. This is different from imagining someone else's experience, but involves adopting a disability for oneself. They explore ways of managing their jobs, reflect on implications at home and consider accessing society in the context of the disability we have chosen. 

The exercise is conducted in silence with eyes shut and lasts about 10 minutes. In the over 400 occasions I have done this, it has never failed. Delegates invariably respond with gravity and shock when asked to feed back on their experience.

Once emotional barriers have been broken, the stage is set to address some of the ignorance about disability, in the form of a no-nonsense reality check. We then explore how to create and adopt a strategy for disability inclusion in that organization or community. This involves assessing physical and attitudinal barriers, removing the barriers and maintaining a barrier-free environment. 

Rather than cramming delegates full of politically correct data, this process encourages them to understand the enigma that is disability. It empowers them to be able to meet disability on its own terms and to be able to appropriately and equitably interact with people with disabilities at work, in society and personally.

Delegates almost unanimously react in the same way after every workshop. Their comments invariably include: "It was an eye-opening experience!"

One can only hope and have faith that they maintain their fervor and, in their own way, begin to make a difference and strive toward a natural and unhesitant inclusion of disability within mainstream society.

Jeremy Opperman is cofounder of Disability Solutions, which provides training and other resource services for the integration of disability into the workplace and society. See: www.disabilitysolutions.co.za

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