Family rejection and lack of public policies lead to exclusion and human rights abuses
In January 2015, the world hear about the story of an Armenian baby called Leo, who had been born with Down Syndrome. When she heard the news, Leo’s mother decided to abandoned him, but his father refused. The father’s reaction made the mother file for divorced and the story moved the world. In November 2014, another outraging episode, this time in Greece. It was found that a state-run facility was locking up children with disabilities in cages. Cages! As if they were animals. These episodes brought to light an important but overshadowed issue of how prejudice towards people with disabilities harms their lives and even violates Human Rights.
In many developing countries disabilities are seen as shameful, the result of a curse, or even as punishment from God Families often hide disabled family members from the community or stop them from fully participating in the community’s social activities. According to Mojdeh Bayat, ‘in the majority of African countries, children with disabilities are practically invisible in society, and there is little to no information about them’. Prejudice also leads to the lack of reliable data about disabled people, as they are kept away from social life. Even when there is no shame, a commonly held perception is that people with disabilities are not capable of living a normal life. Sarah Irwin argues that ‘independence is highly valued, dependence increasingly problematic’ and disabled people are usually very dependent on their families for support. Adults who are not financially or socially independent are usually marginalized from society reinforcing shame or the view that people with disabilities are incapable.
These views create a number of problems. The first is related to public policies, since due to this shame, there are little incentives among politicians to develop and implement programmes specifically directed to disabled persons. The second problem impacts the formation of their personality. The shame of having a disabled relative or the idea of their incapacity is a dialectical process. Having heard all their lives about their incapacity and having being considered a burden to their families, people with disabilities internalize the idea of inferiority and are consequently susceptible to low self-esteem.
A brief history of the approaches to disabilities
Until the 1970s disability was seen as the physical or mental impairment of the individual. This is known as the ‘medical model’, which means, for instance, that if a person is deaf, their disability is the hearing impairment. Even in developed countries disabilities has once been seeing as something degrading. In Nazi Germany, for instance, Hitler propagated the cleansing not only of Jews, but also of disabled persons. In 1913, the UK approved the Mental Incapacity Act, which locked away in degrading institutions around 40 thousand men and women.
In 1970, this Medical Model was challenged by the British movement Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), aiming to change the mind-set of the British society on the issue. UPIAS differentiated between impairment and disability, where the first was the ‘lacking part of or all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organism or mechanism of the body’ and disability was ‘the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by contemporary organisation which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activities’.
This ‘Social Model of Disability’ became the predominant approach in the UK and other developed countries, leading to a series of policies aiming to tackle the weaknesses of public social services. Despite being an evolution at the time, today this view is problematic because it focus too much on the social structure, overshadowing important aspects of disabilities such as prevention, alleviation and rehabilitation programmes. The critiques of the Social Model led to more multidimensional approaches, where disability is seen as the harm inflicted upon a person’s capabilities, resulting from restrictions of the environment and problems caused by the impairment. This view allows for more humane programmes and policies being implemented in developed countries, which simultaneously tackle prejudice and improve the daily lives of people with disabilities.
The role of prejudice in the lives of people with disabilities
In many Asian and African countries, the main prejudice towards people with disabilities comes from within the family unit, and stems from shame associated with having a disabled relative. The identity of disabled children, who rely on their adult relatives for nearly everything in their everyday lives, is significantly influenced by adults’ prejudice. Given that children are susceptible during their formative years, their identities are usually shaped by this prejudice, giving way to low self-esteem and self-doubt. Furthermore, prejudice commonly leads to the exclusion of children with disabilities from school, perpetuating a vicious cycle of shame, low self-esteem, and overall social exclusion.
In Uganda, for instance, there was the case of 16 years old Martha, who is blind. She dropped out of school because other children would not talk to her or bully her because they heard from teachers and parents she was cursed. Most children with disabilities in developing countries share Martha’s experience. They spend their lives hearing they are cursed or that they are incapable, and then internalise and reproduce these feelings in their daily lives. According to the UN, two-fifths of children who are out of school in developing countries are disabled and the situation is even worse for disabled girls. Girls with disabilities face an even more concerning predicament as they must deal with a double prejudice: the one towards their gender and the one pertaining to their disabilities.
In Ivory Coast, parents believe that ‘any death, illness, or natural disaster that might occur in the community could be a result of a curse inflicted upon the community because of the evil spirit of that [disabled]child’. In 2013 in Tanzania, it was found that more than 70 children who were hidden at home by their parents in the Kilimanjaro Region. According to the news, the children had been kept locked in their houses since birth and ‘some of the parents confessed that they restricted the movement of their children because they felt ashamed if people knew about the children’s disabilities’.
Due to these attitudes, people with disabilities commonly experience low self-esteem and are excluded from public social services, such as health care, education, employment, etc. Even in less extreme cases, where children with disabilities are not seen as a curse or a punishment from God, there is still the belief they are a financial burden to the family. Parents believe there is little benefit to send disabled children to school because they do not see them as capable of finding a job in the future.
In a social context where schools are seen as a means to achieve financial independence, most people believe education for disabled children is futile -since they have grown accustomed to disabled adults being financially dependent on their families. However, a study that interviewed disabled students in Ghana and Tanzania, found that they wanted to study ‘to demonstrate capacity and achievement in societies that dismissed their human potential’. In developing countries, most people with disabilities do not believe that public policies addresses their needs nor do they feel accepted by their communities. In this sense, education could be the key to change.
Ensuring education for boys and girls with disabilities promotes a notion of inclusion in the society and a sense shared identity between disabled and non-disabled men and women. In the same way that prejudice and dependence are a dialectical process, education and autonomy can also be. As argued by Amartya Sen, promoting quality education for boys and girls with disabilities is a mechanism for ensuring their freedom to live an independent life, to be seen by non-disabled persons as equals, and to see themselves as citizens and capable individuals.