I have always been fascinated by myths, stereotypes and beliefs that people hold with regards to persons living with disabilities. As much as it’s true that these myths and beliefs contribute immensely to stigma and social barriers in the lives of PWDs, one must admit that there’s always some humorous ring to them.
The perception that disability is a result of curses from the gods, should at least make you laugh. You need not be a medical doctor to know that persons with albinism are not ghosts. The myth that they can make one rich is not only misplaced but stupid, yet I cannot leave it at that. The myths, cultural, social and sometimes religious beliefs are entrenched so deep in us that they are but a prologue to the story ‘discrimination of persons with disabilities’.
I recall reading the ritual killing of the hunchback lady in southern Nigeria. A stupid and repugnant belief that her hunchback had magical materials that could breed wealth. Stories around West Africa of how some communities reject and eject children with disabilities is well documented and adds to this strand of thought. Former Ugandan President Idi Amin is remembered for collecting all PWDs from the streets of Kampala and throwing them in the River Nile.
In Kenya, most cultures and traditions are also repressive towards children and PWDs. This is due to myths and beliefs that PWDs are a result of curses from the gods, or a sexual sin, or perhaps evil. They are therefore unwanted hence social pariahs. This article, however, discusses a simple stereotype, that all PWDs are beggars.
If you walked through the streets of Nairobi, you may come across children and PWDs asking for a coin or two. Well, this is the reality and it is rooted in the history of neglect and discrimination. The mindset that PWDs cannot perform in school, get degrees or white collar jobs has contributed immensely into the lives on the streets.
I have been stopped in the streets by many people who are always willing to drop a coin or two. These are people who are kind, good and embrace the African spirit of Ubuntu – giving a helping hand. On the flip side, I have been stopped from getting into restaurants and shopping malls for the assumption that I am a beggar just because I am on a wheelchair.
A lot of PWDs are always ‘judged’ as poor due to this stereotype. This always comes out clearly when they require services. A lot of service providers are always hesitant as they wonder whether PWDs can pay. The stereotype that PWDs are beggars has significantly affected the right to housing as a lot of landlords carry with them the idea that PWDs are not able to pay rent hence contempt.
But I am not entirely blaming people who look at me and see a beggar. I may be sad as that is the crust thinking towards PWDs but the reality is a lot of these people have made ‘begging’ a business.
There are PWDs who would rather mine public sympathy and get income from it rather than get something else to do. Other PWDs, especially children, are sometimes victims as they are used by able bodied persons to beg. This has created a stereotype in the minds of many people in the society.
Ouma Kizito Ajuong’, Nairobi