Sat, 06 Aug 1994

Attitudes about disability must change

By Julian Francis

JAKARTA (JP): In many countries the voices of people with disabilities are being increasingly heard. This is particularly true in the richer countries, but also now in countries such as Bangladesh.

People, whether with or without disabilities, are gradually beginning to realize the causes of the massive discrimination that, unfortunately, works against the lives of people with disabilities.

People with disabilities are usually "labeled", at first by a medical description or terminology. A person is referred to as being an amputee, blind or deaf. Describing someone in this way is sweeping and impersonal, and focuses on the disability and not on the person.

People with disabilities are more handicapped by the attitude of people around them rather than by their own particular disability. Non-disabled people are often afraid to try, or do not know how, to relate to people with disabilities and this is due to fear, a lack of awareness or understanding.

Also, in the back of some peoples' minds -- from films, books, and even fairy tales -- evil people are often portrayed as people with physical disfigurements.

So, how to change the attitude of the public as well as the government officials who plan programs "for" people with disabilities.

People with disabilities must automatically participate in the planning of many of the educational programs funded from government sources and only then will we see any gradual change in peoples' understanding related to disability issues.

Teachers and other officials have to learn to avoid using words that give wrong meanings and which can be used in the labeling of people with disabilities. I have heard children in Western countries refer to a bad idea as a "spastic idea".

Officials talk of a country having a "crippled" economy. There must be a conscious effort to avoid using these types of words.

In the same way it is important to refer to people with disabilities as such, and not as disabled people. The emphasis must be put on `people' because they are people first just like anybody, but who just happen to have disabilities which can usually be noticed.

To start educating and molding the attitudes of the next generation, there are moves in many Western countries to phase out "Special Schools" for children with disabilities and integrate them in regular schools, and in Dhaka too there is such an experiment being undertaken.

Where this has been implemented there have already been great gains on all sides. Everyone has learned about each other and about themselves.

Now people with disabilities are beginning to realize that they have unwittingly been silent participants in discriminating against themselves because they have failed to challenge others when non-disabled people have said that those with disabilities cannot do this or cannot do that.

This is changing, as it is in Bangladesh too.

In the past few years a few dynamic and dedicated young people with disabilities have joined in hours of discussions about how they can change the situation of people with disabilities in Bangladesh.

They meet regularly and exchange ideas and plan strategies.

Gradually they are having an impact even though at present it is small. The discussions, often assisted by non-disabled but experienced friends, have led to a certain amount of recognition by some government authorities, particularly in the Ministry of Social Welfare.

This small but growing group of women and men with disabilities have produced two potentially important documents which could, if implemented gradually and with care and sensitivity, change a lot of attitudes towards people with disabilities.

One is a National Policy on Disability for Bangladesh and the other is a recommended comprehensive parliamentary legislation entitled "Bangladeshis with Disabilities Act".

It is significant that the multilateral and bilateral donors (with the exception of UNICEF's immunization program) have not put disability issues very high on their agendas when having discussions with the government of Bangladesh.

Now, therefore, is a very good opportunity for the government, with the advice and assistance of the group of people with disabilities, to set a shining example to the donors and to other countries as well, to show that they can very well begin the organization of a national program themselves.

In many countries it has been calculated that every person has at least a 1-in-4 chance of coming directly in close contact with a person with a disability.

This statistic shows how important it is for all people to learn and understand more about their friends and neighbors, particularly those with disabilities.

In this learning, the media in Bangladesh has played a vital role. The print media has in recent times been very supportive and it is hoped that Bangladesh Radio and Television will now do more.

There are many useful messages and teachings which can sometimes be life-saving and that can be passed on, particularly by radio provided that the broadcasts are regular and the language used is not too scientific and complicated.

Also, the many community organizations that exist all over the country can get involved but first they should learn from the experts.

The writer lived and worked in Bangladesh for seven years (1985-1992) and worked closely with people with disabilities. His own brother and son have severe mental disabilities and they are the persons who originally inspired him to work on disability issues. He currently lives in Indonesia where he works with an international development organization.