09 Mar 2005 Mass media and disability in Africa
As a result of negative attitudes and discrimination disabled people, as a group, generally occupy an inferior status in African countries and are severely disadvantaged socially, vocationally, economically, educationally and politically. This discrimination persists in many areas despite the fact that organisations of disabled people have been working hard for many years to lobby and advocate for equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.
By and large the call by disabled activists have been falling on deaf ears due to the poor performance of mass media workers who like the rest of society have their fair share of negative attitudes towards people with disabilities, and thus do not often report positively about this despised group of people. Some journalists may be quick to say this is an unfair statement as they do their best, they will say, to highlight stories about disabled people from time to time. True, but this is not the point here.
From an attitudinal point of view, the use of offensive words and names when referring to people with disability is a clear show of a negative attitude towards them. More often, derogatory words are used to refer to people with disabilities, words that do not build the image of the latter. Such terrible words as ‘deaf and dumb’, ‘crippled’, ‘wheelchair bound’, ‘the lame’ or ‘infirm’ ‘plight’, ‘the disabled’, ‘paralysed,’ ‘sufferers’, ‘deformed’, ‘blind beggars’, are common to most journalists, and they seem to take pride in using these and many others when writing a story about someone with a disability.
Thus it is common to see the mass media (print and electronic) depicting people with disabilities as hopeless, passive and always looking to charity for their livelihood. It is as if people with disabilities can not present a positive image, which needs capturing by the mass media. The mass media therefore need to adopt a positive attitude about people with disabilities. Given that the use of offensive or friendly language by the mass media can be influential in attitude formation, it is clear that the media can play a role second to none in re-shaping the negative attitudes with which people with disability are viewed.
Commitment and determination
This, of course, will take commitment and determination on the part of journalists. Yes, attitudes are often difficult to change as they are inculcated into people’s minds from a very young age. Fear of disability, like death, is practised by a majoritAlexander Phiri
y of young people and adults. Journalists may not therefore be the exception. But as they can play a powerful and significant role in shaping public opinion and creating or changing attitudes through their informative and educational function, they can bring about this change in attitude by highlighting the successes of people with disability. They should not wait to write or talk about people with disabilities only when they are in need. This will help to destroy the often mistaken view that people with disability are there as a burden or as a social liability.
Francis Matambirofa of the University of Zimbabwe once said: ‘It is a very good thing that the media help people with disabilities in getting one form of assistance or another. But it is irresponsible for the media to orchestrate footages we often see on our screens of people with disabilities being made to struggle on the bare earth and carry themselves with great difficulty towards a point where they receive a donated wheelchair or something. Those pictures are often packed with pride on the part of the benefactors – clap hands for me all you out there.’
Finally, I want to call upon all my colleagues with disabilities to resolve to change the attitudes of the majority of people towards them by their skills, their hard work, and their positive attitude towards life and not to resign to degradation and denigration. People with disabilities themselves have a duty to change society’s negative attitude towards them by rising up and acting positively.
Alexander Phiri is Secretary General of the Southern Africa Federation of the Disabled (SAFOD), based in Bulawayo Zimbabwe. He is also Chairman of the National Council of Disabled Persons of Zimbabwe (NCDPZ) and has considerable experience in the disability movement of Southern Africa.