Zimbabwe: Disability Policy Opens Change in Attitudes

Attitudes towards people living with disabilities have been changing quite rapidly in recent years, although probably not as fast as they need to.

The launch this week by President Mnangagwa of the new Government policy on the topic is therefore timely.

The bedrock of any policy, of all actions, has to start with attitudes, and that means several things.

For a start, as the President noted, it is not thinking that anything we do is some form of charity, something extra and something that makes us feel good when we do it.

For a start every citizen needs equality of opportunity. That is just something that we all agree on. Once we start discriminating against people on any ground, and living with disabilities is just one ground, we cannot say where we will end.

If we discriminate against one group we might be next on the list, so the only answer is that we discriminate again none.

Secondly there is the practical requirement. We need all Zimbabweans to be able to contribute fully to their own upkeep, and to the needs of their communities and the nation. Wasting human resources, or preventing by custom or practice the ability of people to earn a living or make a contribution, slows development.

It is also unfair on the general population as well on the people living with disabilities. Why should we pay extra to keep segregated people who are perfectly capable of earning a living, given access to technology and modest thought by architects for access rights?

In most cases people living with disabilities do not need to be segregated or even have special treatment. Like the rest of the population they need access to medical care appropriate to whatever illness or condition they have, and this is a general right, not something special.

Some need access to varying levels of technology, and so do all of us at some stage even if it is just reading glasses as we grow older.

In fact a vast swathe of the practical effects of many disabilities are significantly ameliorated by the growing technology that is available and what people need is practical access to that technology.

We already have laws in place, and have had for some years, that demand proper architecture so that people living with a range of physical disabilities can easily access buildings, offices, factory floors and the like.

But there are still a lot of places where this is not implemented although it should be the automatic norm.

That access problem also includes public transport, where it is assumed in many cases that even having to use a walking stick, let alone crutches because you broke a leg, means you do not want to board a bus.

We are now talking about a dramatic increase in our bus fleets, using local assembly, and it is usually simple and cheap to include such access facilities at the design stage, although expensive to retrofit.

The debate on whether children living with disabilities should have special schools, and be segregated from others, has long been concluded.

The general agreement now is that such children should be at the same schools as everyone else, and even when they might need special training or extra lessons on skills they need to cope with life, these should be in the same premises as the rest of the lessons that all attend.

After all the children, both those living with disabilities and those who are not, are going to have to work together and live together for the rest of their lives so they might as well start by learning together. The word “normal” needs to be used inclusively and carefully. Having to live with a disability does not make anyone “abnormal”.

There is still discussion on quotas for all employers, to take a fixed percentage of people living with disabilities. This may not be a good idea, or at least not something that should be required.

While it is a good idea to pass and enforce rights of movement and access, through good design, and enforce access to appropriate technologies, it might not be a good idea to go further and start treating those living with disabilities as a special group when it comes to employment.

In an ideal world everyone should be employable for their skills, education and knowledge, and if they need a workbench or desk of a different height or a special bit of equipment to easily use a computer or a machine, that should be automatically provided.

In the short term, the idea of quotas has more merit, since there are still some who do not see why they should spend even one dollar extra on equipping an employee, and quotas would ensure this was not a factor in the market place.

But we also need to recognise that all employees’ equipment, whatever it is, is a tax deductible expense, so already the economics are largely sorted out.

Most critically, in his remarks the President brought up the new thinking that the needs of those living with disabilities had to be included in every Government policy.

A lot of the soluble problems people living with disabilities face are not so much the result of active discrimination, at least not in the third decade of the 21st century, but more the result of people not thinking about these needs or forgetting that they exist. It is more a lack of imagination, but having an extra box to tick when doing the planning means that there is more chance of remembering.

This often requires input from people living with disabilities. This is one reason why our Constitution makes provision for two senators drawn from the ranks of people living with disabilities.

When legislators are chosen in an ideal world, such representation will be automatic, but at present we do have to ensure that when a law is going through its Parliamentary stages someone can point out that clause 53 needs to make something clear so all can benefit or even gain access to the service being talked out.

We have moved some distance from the old division of the population into the “normal” and the “disabled”.

But as the President stressed, we still have to move further until we are all “people” with a wide range of needs but all capable, as that continuum of needs is met, of living a “normal” life and making our contributions to ourselves, our families, our communities and our nation.

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