Why Should Satire Romance the Disability Sector!

Dear Comedians,
 
I reflect on some comedy where you unashamedly ‘go to town’ literally poking fun at the disability sector and its limitations with particular reference to our sexuality. That your audience took no notice of your blatant insult to the disability community and instead exploded in roars of laughter exposes stereotypes that are permanently visited on people with disabilities, some of whom are mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces, etc. of able-bodied persons. Question is: how did we get to this point?
 
In case you were not aware, identity can be structured upon shared social experience; that there are fixed identities of persons with disabilities; and that the self plays a significant role in the formation of identity. However, it is important for you to understand the rhetoric versus practical realities in order to assess what can free persons with disabilities from fixed identities that have been enforced overtime by regulatory regimes embodied in cultural and societal prejudices.
 
As would be adequately articulated below in tandem with the gist of this letter, a person with disability has the capability of constructing a self-identity not constituted in impairment but rather independent of it, and of accepting impairment as a reality that he or she lives with without losing a sense of self. Therefore, disability in a socio-cultural context can be defined as a barrier to participation of people with impairments or chronic illnesses arising from an interaction of the impairment or illness with discriminatory attitudes, cultures, policies or institutional practices.
 
The traditional view of disability often focuses on the individual, highlighting incapacities or failings, a defect, or impairment. This narrow focus creates obstacles to participation on equal terms since an individual who seems to lack certain capacities may not be able to attain autonomy.
 
Society often does not take into account the ways in which impairment is part of humanity. Instead, it views the effects of impairment as obstacles. This emanates from the interaction between persons with disabilities and society. Society desires that a person with a disability fit into societal structures, rather than structures fitting into the person's with disability needs.
 
You will recall that from time to time contemporary society has regarded impairment as a handicap. In essence, the idea of a ‘handicap’ is a form of discrimination that has social origins. This creates disadvantages that persons with disabilities experience not necessarily as emanating from some biological determination but rather from socially, culturally, economically, and politically constructed obstacles.
 
Disability therefore becomes equivalent to social oppression within which government policies, state authorities, and institutions (including the arts) are all key factors in the formation of structures that oppress persons with disabilities.
 
The solution, however, is to give persons with disabilities citizenship rights and change society's material structure, since the oppressive mechanisms that transform impairments to disabilities are enhanced by structures that are embedded in ideas and attitudes of non-disabled persons.
 
The universal construct of the self is the product of the fact that every human being is aware of his individuality. It is a premise that human beings are consciously aware of their own lives and it is through reflexivity that we become aware of a consciously constructed self.
 
Self is seen as a universal human property, something that we must all possess and a characteristic that we must all develop. Self in this context enables us to reflect on who we are, whom we choose to identify with, and what we choose to do as matters of choice, not compulsion.
 
Group membership in this kind of reflection is no longer synonymous with identity formation. We are able to choose our identity and ignore and even reject identities fostered on us as a result of ascribed characteristics. We do all these by creation of narratives about the self which, provided we can sustain these narratives and work to maintain our sense of self.
 
As a person with a disability, I challenge the social construction of what is regarded as normal and a normal body and embrace the difference of a body with impairment as what is normal or not. Self-identity hence becomes a product of a conscious action that questions identity dominated by social ascription.
 
That my identity and sexuality therefore becomes the subject of hilarious satire (at least within your limited scope) thus exhibits so profoundly as a manifestation of deep-rooted prejudices that are visited upon the disability sector. It might be useful to remind you that in concert with sentiments expressed above, disability is not a choice but an occurrence or an ensemble of a number of forces at play, most of which unpalatable.
 
Challenging social systems, in which persons with disabilities are subordinated through relations that are contradictory to their own views of self, helps persons with disabilities to create self-identities that are far removed from biomedical models that present disability as tragedy. Furthermore, the self-identity created does not necessarily show off difference; is it not about celebrating difference or diversity, or taking pride in identity through labelling, but about defining disability in its own terms, under its own terms of reference.
 
In its 2011 Profile of Disability in South Africa, Statistics South Africa records that the degree of difficulty (disability) measure showed that females had the highest percentage of persons experiencing mild and severe difficulties across all types of difficulties except for communication, where both males and females had the same proportion of persons who had experienced mild difficulties. The population group profile shows that black Africans had the highest proportion of persons with disabilities (7.8 percent), followed by the white population group (6.5 percent). No variations were observed among the coloured and Indian/Asian population groups.
 
There is low labour market absorption of persons with disabilities. The degree of difficulty is related to economic participation, with increased difficulty being associated with a decrease in labour market participation. In five of the six functional domains, employment levels were highest among persons with no difficulty and lowest among persons with severe difficulties across the provinces.
 
Statistics South Africa further notes that the low representation of persons with disabilities in the work place leaves a number of questions unanswered: is it non-compliance, prejudice or insufficient skills, or a combination of factors including environmental obstacles, misconceptions and prejudice about capabilities of persons with disabilities to perform certain jobs remain one of the major obstacles to employment opportunities and their exclusion from opportunities for promotion in their careers.
 
The exclusion of persons with disabilities from work imposes a financial burden on their families, and often translates into impoverishment of individuals and households of persons with disabilities, particularly those in under-resourced communities.
 
Rights are formulated to protect aspects of human dignity. All human beings need rights to survive hard times. Despite the noble function that rights are expected to perform in human life, violation of the same rights is experienced from all directions. Most often the violation becomes so legitimate that the rights of persons with disabilities are seen as privileges and are thus not given adequate recognition.
 
Disability is both a human rights and social issue. Thus legitimising disability for the purpose of acknowledging capabilities and limitations becomes vital. Self-identity is more tested in this aspect because unless one is very sure of one's self and has formulated an adequate self-concept, the subject may not be sure of his or her own capabilities and limitations; they may be at a loss as to the relation between the extent of personal rights and dysfunctions. Consequences might include misconstruing rights for privileges and seeking a privilege as a right. A true positive identity should be able to distinguish the two and use the same to fight winning battles.
 
As persons with disability, we are able to choose our identity and ignore and even reject identities forced on us as a result of ascribed characteristics.
 
We do this by creation of narratives about the self, and provided we can sustain these narratives we are able to maintain our sense of self. Through this approach, the problems associated with conflating identities into essential, fixed, pre-ordained, singular categories can be avoided, such as the homogenisation of persons with disabilities into a singular group or the ascription of a single identity. As persons with disability, we are entitled to enjoyment of human rights and acquisition of dignity through these rights.
 
Developing strong self-identity and a positive self-concept empowered us to such an extent that fighting for our rights emanates from a clear understanding of the self, first as persons and secondly as members of a group of persons in similar circumstances. The actualisation of the self-concept would also enable us to fight for individual rights apart from group rights.
 
Moreover, group membership in this kind of understanding does not affect our self-identity formation. It has been and will hopefully continue to be a powerful and creative force, but as persons with disabilities, will need self-identity first and foremost to become a part and parcel of the wider group or movement. Special education, legislation, the media, and the Human Rights Commission can become spearheads in mobilising changes in attitudes and stereotypes that are so pervasive.
 
On your favourite subject of sex, you may be interested to know that research has shown that persons with disabilities may be denied the right to establish relationships and could also be forced into unwanted marriages, where they may be treated more as housekeepers or objects of abuse than as a member of the family. In many societies, social discrimination and stigma make it hard for young persons with disabilities to marry, particularly girls.
 
Considered in some societies as less eligible marriage partners, women with disabilities are more likely to live in a series of unstable relationships, and thus have fewer legal, social and economic options should these relationships not work out.
 
Furthermore, women with disabilities are not recognised as being ‘women’ enough to bear children, marry or keep the domestic fires burning. They are seldom afforded an opportunity to be educated, as it is believed that one day they will find a man who will take care of them, even though they are not marriage material. As women, they are often not in control of their own sexuality and reproductive rights. In many situations, health professionals and to an extent their family members decide if they may have children or not. According to research, women with disabilities are three times more likely to be victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
 
Certain sex-related cultural beliefs and behaviour practices place women with disabilities at higher risk of HIV infection. 'Virginity Cleansing', a practice where an HIV infected person has sex with a virgin in the belief that they would be cured of the infection has led to the rape of many persons with disabilities especially mentally challenged women and babies. They become victims of this practice as it is believed they are virgins and in most instances cannot protect themselves from such attacks.
 
While you are contemplating the above, you may want to refurbish your blatant disregard for the disability sector, which is obviously borne out of ignorance and utter disrespect for it.  We are not eager to be reminded of our vulnerability, and certainly not available to be afforded the unwelcome suit of satirical ridicule.
 
Despite obtaining challenges, we do find space to laugh at ourselves through measured reflections of our solitude circumstances. However, we have no room to be romanced by insults hurled our way without exculpation in the name of satire: the proverbial tale of two poles does not meet with our conscious and considered approval.
An opportunity is thus presented to you to reflect. Seriously reflect on: Why Should Satire Romance the Disability Sector.
 
- Sipho Edwin Rihlamvu (Mobile: 079 045 1630, Email: simphiwecomms@hotmail.com) is Managing Director at Simphiwe Communications.

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