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Disability Discourse, When The Activist Bucks Up The Wrong Tree

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By Masimba Kuchera

The last few months have got me thinking whether I’ve been misdirecting my disappointment when the man or woman in the street calls me “bofu” or chirema”, loosely translating to blind man or cripple. I’ve always thought that we need to bring society up to speed with better and more respectful terms of referring to someone like me who has a visual impairment and have felt that it is out of ignorance that such terms as bofu, chirema, mbeveve or matsi are used referring to someone who has a visual, physical, speech or hearing impairment respectively.

In addition to those words falling into class nouns of animals, the words carry a negative historical connotation akin to those words which referred our fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters who fought in the liberation struggle as terrorists or guerrillas and not freedom fighters. Many liberation movements struggled with this tag of being labelled terrorists or guerrillas which insinuated that what they were doing was wrong.

Even Nelson Mandela who had been labelled a terrorist by the American government had that nullified in 2008. White supremacists referred to black Americans as negors and that term was rightly viewed as despising of the black race.

Indeed, society has moved from such terms and the narrative is being rewritten and the history corrected. For disability though this seems to be a long way away judging from the language and misuse of terms in describing persons with disabilities.

For starters, persons with disabilities are still referred to as “people living with disabilities”.

From the newsroom to the legislature, to the Church and even the private sector, the description remains the same. Artists, especially musicians are also culprits but I will expand this in the next insert.

To put it into some perspective, the Genesis of the “people living with” tag was as a way of fighting stigma. People living with HIV came up with the phrase because everyone with the virus had a death sentence passed by the society on them.

So as a way of fighting this the term “people living with” was coined. However, no one has died or can potentially die from an impairment or a disability meaning that the “people living” term does not and cannot therefore apply. In actual fact, those of us with impairments only have disabilities when our impairments interact with an unfriendly environment such as giving printed signs to someone with a visual impairment, not having interpretation for someone with a speech impairment or asking someone with a physical impairment to use the stairs when on a wheelchair.

Notwithstanding the fact that on September 23 2013 the parliament of Zimbabwe ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, even the parliamentarians themselves seem ignorant. This was clearly on show on May 10 during the questions without notice session where even the minister of Public Service, Labour and social Welfare Prisca Mupfumira in an attempt to correct a parliamentarian who had used the wrong term also referred to us as people living with disabilities.

As the fourth estate I believe that the media has a big role to play in changing this mind-set and terminology.

However, despite spirited attempts to have editors in newsrooms change this, up to now all attempts seem to be yielding little. This is a problem across the board as shown by the following headlines in the leading tabloids in Zimbabwe:
https://www.newsday.co.zw/…/evicted-people-disabilities-re…/ https://www.newsday.co.zw/…/people-living-disabilities-evi…/ https://www.newsday.co.zw/…/people-living-disabilities-bem…/ https://www.dailynews.co.zw/…/disabled-tenants-charity-trad… https://www.dailynews.co.zw/…/address-needs-of-learners-wit… https://www.dailynews.co.zw/…/call-for-pro-disabled-educati… https://www.dailynews.co.zw/…/disabled-tenants-evicted-from… http://www.herald.co.zw/people-living-with-disabilities-de…/ http://www.herald.co.zw/accommodation-a-right-for-people-w…/

There’s an urgent need for Zimbabwe to fully embrace a rights-based approach to disability and using the right terminology would be a good entry point. The fourth estate can help by not reinforcing the wrong terms and maybe our artists, especially musicians may take a queue.

This use of proper terms will start changing the mind-set not only of the various communities where persons with disabilities reside but also help to change and shape government and legislative policy which up to now sadly views persons with disabilities as objects of charity.

As a disability rights activist and advocate I offer myself to train and work with legislators, editors, journalists, religious leaders and captains of industry who would want to be part of this mind-set shift.

Perhaps including those with disabilities to speak for themselves in newsrooms, boardrooms, pulpits and houses of parliament in their number will shorten the time it will take to cause the mind-set shift. To fellow colleagues with disabilities, let this be a rallying call to increase our participation where it matters most. Together we can go far, aluta continua!!

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