Tuesday, September 23, 2014

South Africa’s Disappointing Trend for Disability Humour

 by Fadzai Nova

As a writer I understand the importance of words and how they have an effect on people’s ideas, ethics and
perceptions about themselves and the world. What people understand and believe is what they perpetuate; the larger the group of people that perpetuate an idea, the more it is seen to be true and once society has an idea of what the ‘truth’ is, it is challenging to reform views without considerable energy.

I have recently completed writing a comprehensive report called ‘The State of Disability in Gauteng’. It is a review of South Africa’s disability policy and how well it has been implemented within the Gauteng province with reference to other provinces in the country. Disability rights and awareness is not a typical workplace water cooler conversation; perhaps on commemorative days, an educational pamphlet will be half read before being tossed into the recycle bin to ease the guilt, but it is usually not a standard topic for discussion. Disability became a trend in social media due to the Oscar Pistorius trial, which was an unfortunate but relevant time to highlight disability rights, but South Africans had jokes on their minds.

People with disabilities are a marginalised group who often come third, if at all, in social development issues. Society tends to focus on the plight of children, women and the elderly before considering the needs of people with disabilities, which contributes to society’s ill attitudes towards the marginalised group.

There seems to be an extreme lack of knowledge in South Africa about the fact that people with disabilities deserve equal rights and respect. Even among people who would consider themselves educated and cultured intellectuals, I have often heard derogatory terminology such as “cripple” being used to describe a person with a disability or being used to describe the inability of an able-bodied person to perform a task.

It is disappointing to witness how people (educated intellectuals included) in South Africa have easily reached for jokes about Oscar Pistorius’ disability even though he is an accomplished athlete who deserves dignity in this regard. Nonetheless social media continues to wave insensitive humour and comments about Pistorius which have a negative ripple effect on perceptions of people with disabilities as a whole. Discriminating against someone because of their disability is the same as discriminating against someone because of their race or gender; just because the group being discriminated against is smaller than another group does not make it funny or excusable.

It is difficult enough that people with disabilities still have other social categories to grapple with, such as gender, race, sexual orientation and so forth. These classifications do not fall away simply because disability becomes the primary focal point. In addition, people with disabilities, especially in Africa, struggle with cultural and customary practices that have and still do subject many people with disabilities to gross neglect and discrimination within their communities. Therefore, creating jokes around a person’s disability will only re-enforce negative perceptions.

The needs of people with disabilities is not merely a health or welfare issue, it is primarily a social issue as society continues to believe in false ideas. Disabled or able-bodied, people are all categorised under one umbrella: we all live on this earth, we all have the right to equal treatment, access and quality of life. What I find most hypocritical of humans is our egotistical concept of being ‘better’ than animals and plant life, yet we are the most cruel and demoralising of all species. How we have handled Oscar Pistorius’ disability as a country is appalling. Out of all the nations we strive to celebrate diversity, yet we continuously mock those who are different.