Recently I read an article in the Times which pulled apart a document produced by the Chinese to "advise" people who to treat people with disabilities in preparation for the upcoming Paralympics. It really made some sad reading, especially given that there are approx 83 million people with disabilities living in China (which is equal to the entire population of Germany).
"The guide for Chinese volunteers at the Games this summer explains that disabled people are a “special group” with “unique personalities and ways of thinking”.
The section of the manual entitled “Skills for helping the disabled” goes on to say: “Some physically disabled are isolated, unsocial, and introspective. They can be stubborn and controlling . . . defensive and have a strong sense of inferiority."
So then I began to think about how people with disabilities are treated here, in South Africa. I am afraid to say that in many cases we are just as bad, and in some areas we are worse. Recently, I was asked to give a talk to a group of business people in Jo'burg on the integration of Disability. What shocked me was what the speaker before me was saying. He runs some rehabilitation centres for people with disabilities and he was speaking from his experience of running them. His main thrust was that newly disabled people have usually "lost their connection with god" and the first step to rehabilitation HAS to be making that connection. Because I was being paid to speak, it would have been inappropriate for me to shout him down (although I did correct that when it came to my own turn!!!). I really feel so sorry for all the people in his "care". Now, I will admit that I have met many newly disabled people, whose faith has helped them come to terms with their disability. I would not deny that, and I have seen that it does work for some people. However, I have also seen the complete reverse, where a person's faith or religion has really had a huge negative effect on a person's recovery. Some people (including the sad, deluded, Oprah -inspired, "the secret-loving", mindless eejuts) actually believe that a disability is a punishment from a god for some sin committed. I have been informed that I am in a wheelchair for that reason on more than one occasion. How would a person begin to come to terms with that? It is awful, and the proponents of this sick way of thinking should be ashamed with the hurt and negative impact that they may cause. Fortunately, for me, I do not believe that there is any god or supernatural being, but I can only imagine the really deep psychological issues that a believer may feel if they think that way or are told that.
In some sections of society in South Africa, a person with a disability is viewed as an embarrassment, as they really think that it is some form of punishment on either the individual or even the family. For this reason the person is often hidden away from society. I have found people who have not been out of their shack (or even their family's up market house...it is not just certain sections of society) for years. They carry a massive amount of guilt for what they think they are putting their family through.
Of course, there is sometime guilt involved with newly disabled people, depending on individual circumstances. I felt very guilty as my disability was initiated through sport (something I did not have to do), and also that I did not appear to have the same earning potential as before (this coupled with having to spend a lot of my savings, which had been put aside for children's education and the like. I also felt like less of a man. I would suggest that they are all pretty normal issues that many people have to come to terms with. But add a sick religious (or perhaps supernatural belief in the case of 'the secret" believers) dimension on top of that, and that must make that guilt feel almost unbearable for some people.86% of people with disabilities gain their disability through their lives (only 14% were born with the disability). 10 - 20% of any population are disabled. People with disabilities are just people who live with different impairments. We are not (necessarily!) sinners, or saints! Get rid of the labels!! We are all in this together. Some people with disabilities may require your assistance at times - but either wait to be asked, or please ask before providing it. If you go to shake someone's hand and you are given a stump to shake, then bloody well shake that. If the person has problems speaking, then please don't try to finish the words or sentences for them. Don't pet their guide dogs when the dogs are in harness. Don't stare. If a child asks you why that person is in a wheelchair / blind / walks funny / looks funny / whatever, then give the child a sensible answer (dependent on their age) after all there are the disabled and those people who are temporarily able, and tomorrow it may be you or the child who is the one being asked about. If you happen to believe that your version of your god is the sort that disables people as a punishment, then please keep that to yourself, and I hope that you would find a way to live with that belief if you ever become disabled yourself...