With news of Jerry Lewis’s death flying around on Social Media, I became aware of his statement, “[If] you don’t want to be pitied as a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in ya home” through a tweet from Emma Ladau. Regardless of context, this kind of thinking makes me sadder than I can express.
I was born with a physical disability and have spent several years of my life in a wheelchair. Does that make me deserving of pity? Yes, disability has been a part of my life and will be forever. There’s nothing I can do to change that. While disability is part of my identity, it is not the only thing that makes me who I am.
When I think of what defines me, the first things that pop into my head is that I value friends and family above everything, I’m a Literature fan, and that I’m doing what I love. Only after all those things do ‘disabled’ or ‘wheelchair-user’ make an appearance. Yes, being a wheelchair-user comes with some challenges but life is full of them. Should one be pitied because they have challenges when, if we’re honest, everyone has challenges of their own? I think not.
Because of the fact that I was born with a disability, my disability and my wheelchair by extension, cannot be removed from my identity. That said, it is true that some people do see disability (particularly physical ones as they are often the most visible) as ‘pitiful.’ Does that mean that my identity, either in part or as a whole, is pitiful?
To those South African friends: I’m not due to leave until the end of Undergrad so we’ve still got time together. That said, there are several reasons why I’m going to leave. This post focuses purely on one small aspect of why England is better on the Disability Front (which in and of itself is only one factor in the Emigration Decision).
My mother just got back from a trip through England for the last month earlier today. Yes, she spent some of the time with family and looking around but the primary motivation for the trip is house-hunting.
As a family, we’ve decided that we have to move to England after I’ve finished my Undergraduate for various reasons. While there, my mother decided to have a look around areas more generally as well as at specific properties. Hearing some of the stories of her trip in the hours since she’s been back, I’m amazed at the accessibility and general awareness of disability differences between England and South Africa.
The brief period of time that I spent in London a couple of years ago really opened my eyes to how accessible Public Transport could be for disabled people. Not once was there a bus, train, or taxi that I couldn’t use. Although I did not spend my time exclusively in London, London was the place where I used Public Transport the most.
Cape Town, in contrast with London, is largely unaware of its disabled population on the Public Transport Front. While one could argue South Africa’s awareness is somewhat justified given its past, it was refreshing to be in a place where accessing the city was possible (not to mention easy and affordable).
In November last year, I started working for the Altitude Group as a Researcher. The Altitude Group’s goal is to empower disabled people within the economy and help to increase the numbers of disabled people who are active members of the South African workforce. I blogged about the work Altitude was doing some time ago here on in the Diaries – see the original post here.
I think The Altitude Group are doing a great job of trying to address the disturbingly low number of disabled people in employment in South Africa. I know that there are many, many problems facing South Africa at the moment but I am glad that, in some small way, they are addressing this issue.
Since my last post, I have helped with the administration of a couple of the Learnerships and I have become all the more convinced that the work that the Altitude Group does is fantastic and should be applauded.
In case you want to learn more, you can follow them on FaceBook or find them on Twitter.
* Disclaimer: These are my personal views on the topic and they cannot and should not be taken as being universal to everyone in the Disabled Community. *
Given that I was born with a disability, I’ve never known life any differently. It’s happening a lot less frequently now but I used to get asked by people something a long the lines of “Isn’t there a cure for it?” or “If you could, would you get rid of the disability?”. The answer to the first question is a flat out “no” given current medical science. The answer to the second, however, is a little less clear-cut. Yes, disability comes with its own challenges but, then again, it’s all I’ve known. To change that, then, would be to change everything I know about myself and the world around me and, challenges aside, I’m quite happy with my life.
This same conundrum is brought up when someone hears I’m in a wheelchair and almost reflexively jumps to “I’m sorry” type responses. Yes, I understand why you’d say this in terms of the challenges that I face on a daily basis but, at the same time, those challenges have always been a part of me, it’s all I’ve known. While it would be nice to make some things easier, they’re no harder than they’ve always been, no harder than I’ve expected them to be. Since I’ve grown up with my disability guiding the way I do things in life, my disability is not so much a hindrance that affects me as it is a defining part of my identity as a person.
‘Disabled’ v. ‘Differently-Abled’
While I’m on the topic of Disability and Identity I think it’s time for me to shed some light on the terminology and how I see/use them in case some people may take offense to the way I use certain words or phrases. Given that this is an account of my personal experiences I think it’s only fair that I use terminology, both here and throughout the blog, that reflects my personal views towards terminology etc. in the Disability World. That said, some people disagree with me on some/all of these points (and that’s fine) so please be wary of which terms you use around people. There are only three terms I want to draw your attention to (this far): ‘disabled’, ‘handicapped’, and ‘people with disabilities’.
So recently (August 10) I was told by a University of Cape Town (UCT) Campus Protection Services (CPS) officer that my Service Dog, who is trained and registered with Guide Dogs South Africa, is not allowed on campus – despite the fact that she has come on to campus consistently since I started studying there in February. What made me particularly angry about this was the guard’s reason for the dog being barred from Campus: she was a dangerous weapon. Yes, that’s right a dangerous weapon. Even more infuriating was that after I tried to explain to him that the dog is not a ‘weapon’ but that, according to him, she would “remain a dangerous weapon until its teeth have been EXTRACTED!
Naturally, within hours I had written e-mails and had phone-calls to CPS Management wanting to lay formal complaints about this Officer and his conduct. My sister also posted a mini FaceBook rant about the incident. Less than 24-hours later it went viral and is still circulating rapidly online (for a link to the original post, click here). Within a few days of this post, UCT responded with a press-release publicly condemning the actions of the Security Officer and that they have spoken to him (click here).
Although I’m glad that the university has taken action, I think now would be a good time as any to point out the importance of Service/Guide Animals -let’s call them ‘Service animals’ for now- to both the individual the animal assists and the wider Disabled, or ‘Differently-abled’, Community as a whole. I know that Jessica Bothma from Varsity Newspaper is writing a piece for the latest issue on this matter so I won’t try to steal her thunder on this but, all the same, I think it needs repeating.
Service animals provide a sense of empowerment to the individuals they aid and, ultimately, allow them a greater sense of independence. Sure, depending on a dog/cat/horse for physical/emotional assistance does not make you fully ‘independent’, but then again who hasn’t depended on other individual for help at some point in their lives, by depending on an animal for a majority of our needs we are able to feel, at the very least more independent from human assistance – which could potentially lead to more discomfort or embarrassment than necessary.
By denying the Service animal, in my case a 5.5-year-old Golden Retriever, onto University/school campuses or other facilities, you are doing more than just telling the person that he/she may not bring an animal with them. Essentially what you, as the hypothetical security guard are doing is belittling another person by denying him/her the independence which you (the stereotypical example of an able-bodied community) take for granted. Yes I, a representative of the Differently-abled Community, might have a similar independence to you but what you must remember is that I might express my independence differently to you as a result of, in my case, a physical disability. Jessica Bothma, the same journalist who is running a piece on the discrimination I faced two weeks ago did a piece in the previous Varsity Newspaper which reiterates my independence point perfectly (find the link here here – thanks again Jessica for all the help).
I was recently made aware by a deaf friend of mine that Sterkinekor Cinemas in South Africa do not provide a single show with subtitles for the some 1.5 million Deaf/Hard of Hearing people in South Africa (some 28% of the total population. In response to this, there is a petition going around for Sterkinekor to provide one show a week with subtitles – it’s currently at 182 signatures. I ask that you click here and join myself and the other 181 people wishing for equality! Aidan