Heritage Day 2022_culture article

How do different cultures view disability?

In this Heritage Month, it is appropriate that we take a closer look at different cultures and the way they view disabilities.

The diversity of social and cultural views on disability directly affects the degree of stigma or respect experienced by community members with disabilities. In some cultures there is shame associated with disability that comes from a belief that one’s disability
was caused by that person or an immediate family member doing something wrong, by magic or by some ancestral sin. It can also be considered an individual condition and accompanied by attitudes of pity and sympathy.

There are cases where persons with disabilities are protected from the outside world by their families, isolated in institutions or limited from full community involvement by a lack of resources, including adaptive equipment or services, accessible transportation and others. In China, mental health is believed to be achieved through self-discipline, exercising power and avoiding morbid thoughts. Emotional problems are understood to be associated with poor character.  Some countries in Africa experience high levels of abuse and even murder of people with albinism due to the mistaken belief that their body parts can be used effectively in traditional medicine.

Generally, disability is seen as something shameful – a skeleton in the closet. Misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about a specific loss or illness can cause a tremendous amount of fear, hostility, alienation and blame.

Disability rights movements in different countries and parts of the world look at this matter differently. Most are making positive changes with support for the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). People with disabilities advocate for their rights to inclusive and active participation in all aspects of society, making progress in the following areas: voting rights, access to higher education, improved transport access, changing attitudes in the media and increased employment.

It is extremely important to point out that the idea of disability is a concept, which includes a whole range of physical, psychosocial, sensory, neurological and intellectual losses, a concept that is understood differently in different communities and even within communities. The idea of disability as a concept can also be foreign to communities.

It is shocking that some families in South Africa allow or perpetrate outright abuse of family members with disabilities. From illegally using the person’s disability allowance for their own purposes to locking the person in the house without access to the family, or physical abuse and violence. It is difficult to comprehend that this is happening, but it is important to realize that many times this abuse can be attributed to ignorance. One expects the family to be informed about how to deal with their child’s or family member’s disability. But families must first be taught to understand the relative’s loss before they can be trained how to deal with it.  And in cases where traditional culture and beliefs play a large role, it can be more difficult.

Negative stereotypes about disability are often deeply embedded in certain communities and can be mistakenly accepted as the norm or as correct by persons with disabilities. To counter this, media campaigns to change perceptions about disability and programs that portray disability in a positive way and that focus on empowerment are becoming more common. Aggressive awareness raising about aspects of disability that spreads the message that every person is equal and has value regardless of their culture, race, gender or disability (among others) must be spread throughout society.

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