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Gordon's D-Zone Arcive (2006-2014)

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Disability: A Form of Apartheid?

After finishing reading Nelson Mandela’s account of his movement’s struggle against apartheid, entitled “Long Walk to Freedom”, I could not help noticing the similarities between the struggle of black South Africans against an oppressive apartheid system (instituted by Afrikaans rule) and our struggle, as disabled people, against a disablist system. I admit that I always felt close to the black civil rights movement. As a boy of about 9, I used to love reading about how Martin Luther King Junior brought about the changes in the US. Indeed, the legacy of Martin Luther King Junior is more significant to this generation since Barrack Obama is the first Afro-American to attain the highest position in the United States.

Yes, I felt that I could identify with the cause of racial equality but I didn’t know why I did at that age. The fact was that I was white. And I didn’t even have black friends or relatives. But, in retrospect, I suspect my feelings of ‘not fully belonging’ in my society or, in some way, I was considered ‘not normal’ were probably the reasons why I felt ill at ease with such ideas as patriotism. For, in truth, was I really being treated like any other Maltese boy of my age when I was 9? Although I tried to deny it, the fact was that I was not.

Mandela talks of how he used to look up to the ‘(white) British gentleman’ as the ideal he should strive for as a South African when it was still under British rule. In fact, the educational system was geared towards bringing this about. However, in the process, Africans were urged to deny their language and their pride in who they were – including their history and traditions. While the idea of a disabled culture is a controversial one, there is certainly a non-disabled ideal of 'normality' many of us had to aspire to. I spent many a day in my childhood praying God to ‘straighten my legs’, or want to have a more masculine body.

There was also a time when I had to do a lot of physiotherapy to get my legs straightened. Indeed, the messages we get from the media is that our bodies are faulty and imperfect. Although some may strongly disagree with my position to stop my exercise regime, I decided that I wanted to live my life as I was – I didn’t want to spend hours doing meaningless exercises to get closer to what mainstream considered ‘normal walking’. I wanted to live my life… and have real friends!

However, the problems we face are not simply overcome by dismantling disablist attitudes. In fact, like in the apartheid system, we often have experienced segregation. In some countries, this is still a daily reality. A few examples of what I mean should help clarify:

  • Segregated education: Non-Inclusion and Special schools – The word ‘special’ here is a nice word for ‘segregated’. In fact, the end result is the same. In Malta, disabled children started being integrated into the mainstream in the late 80s. Even if services offered by these schools can help, no child should spend all his/her childhood in segregated educational settings where no real socialisation occurs.

  • Segregated buildings: Inaccessible buildings – No, there aren’t buildings where only disabled people or non-disabled people can enter. However, if you have an inaccessible building, it pretty has the same effect.

  • Segregated transport: Inaccessible public transports – Again, we don’t have buses for disabled or non-disabled people but the very fact that a number of buses cannot board a wheelchair user or offer other services to disabled users means that, for many of us, public transport is not a viable option. In addition, as a user of accessible transport, I find that the cost to use such transport (in spite of subsidies) is steep when compared to regular public transport.

  • Problems accessing employment – Of course, there is no sober employer who will openly declare he or she would not employ a disabled person. But if you look at the low rate of employment for disabled people across Europe and in Malta, you then start wondering. Not only are workplaces often inaccessible to some of us but some employers are even reluctant to make them accessible or even consider a disabled applicant who uses assistive equipment but is equally qualified to a non-disabled one. May be this same employer is more comfortable giving away thousands for charity during Christmas time instead?

  • Segregated sanitary facilities: Claustrophobic toilets – Well, I leave that to your imagination. Just note that an accessible toilet has been used by some irresponsible people as a store, or as a repository – sometimes even being locked. Let me not talk about the one time I was going to burst while waiting for the key to come!

  • Segregated Housing: Residential Institutions – Perhaps the worst kind of segregation is when you are forced to live apart from other people solely on the basis of your impairment. As explained in an earlier post, such settings can do much to kill any motivation you might have, let alone to aspire for freedom or equality.

All this reveals that there are many similarities between the apartheid system and the state of disablement. Our struggle may be only different, and perhaps more difficult, because we are often the only ones in our family with an impairment which increases the risk of internalising our oppression and believing, as many of us do in our early years, that we should accept unequal treatment. Incidentally, there was also a notable disabled activist who joined during the struggle against apartheid: Vic Finkelstein. His work reflects the parallels between his struggle against apartheid and his later involvement in disability activism.

To conclude this rather long post, I wish to quote part of Mandela’s concluding paragraph to his book:

“I was not born to be free. I was born free.”

However, as illustrated through Mandela’s account, freedom can be denied. When that happens, it’s not enough to be satisfied with the status quo but we must work towards the dismantling of the barriers that prevent us from achieving equality which involves a degree of responsibility. At the end of the day, any struggle for equality, is a fight to regain our very basic right to be acknowledged as part of humanity.