Govt must implement disability inclusive actions

HARARE - It can be said without gainsay that Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko has in many occasions not shied away from controversy in the way he has sought to tackle very important political and social issues.

One such area has been the clear expression of his disposition towards disability.

This is going to be the basis of my discussion in this instalment. The first interaction between the Mphoko and disability came through his expression of an opinion on vending.

Though not originally targeted at persons with disabilities, the statement became an important discussion point.

The second major interaction between the vice president and disability was to be seen when he deliberately through his party mechanism called for a meeting with the disabled people and their organisations to discuss various challenges especially employment related ones. 

I take this opportunity to look at these two with a view to see how far they have enriched the disability rights discourse in Zimbabwe. I must state at the onset that I am writing from the reports of newspaper articles and I believe this is a serious limitation that you gentle reader must be made aware of. I will however, try to be as objective as possible notwithstanding this limitation.

In his “Meet the People” tours, he is alleged to have said he did not think that vending and particularly selling of tomatoes was for able-bodied persons but for the “physically-challenged”, a misnomer for people with disabilities). 

He has been strongly criticised for being out of touch with reality by failing to appreciate the economic situation which has forced able-bodied men into vending. Unfortunately, his statement was equally received with great condemnation from some sections of disability rights activists who simply argued that the sentiments were a blatant insult to disability by a man in a high office.

These activists sought to make it clear that his sentiments were unfortunate as they reinforced the thinking that disability was inability when actually the contrary is true. Some even rightly argued that this was clearly a manifestation of the urgent need for self-representation of disabled people at all levels.

My take on the vice president’s statement is that we need to first concede that Mphoko was expressing his personal opinion. The effect such a statement had on disability was therefore inadvertent. I however, make this statement not in his defence but contend that this would help us locate the serious issue which we have in our hands. 

These sentiments, although personal, actually tell us of the lack of knowledge on disability issues in the government in which Mphoko is a VP. First and foremost, the use of the phrase “the physically-challenged” is also seen in the ZimAsset document. Disability must be rightly understood as arising out of social barriers that hinder impaired people from participating at an equal level with others.

In this scheme of things therefore, referring to those with disabilities as having “physical challenges” is a blatant refusal to admit where the actual challenge lies. We are disabled by the barriers that are put around us therefore, it is the society and our environment which are challenged.

Second and even more fundamental, Mphoko’s statement borders on the charity model of disability which does not encourage equalisation of opportunities.

Thus, the statement was an admission if not perpetuation of the status quo in which disabled people remain at the bottom of the social structure and there was no attempt to question this unfortunate scheme of things.

Put much simpler, the VP seemed to be accusing the able-bodied for falling down too low and doing things expected of disabled people.

Given that Zimbabwe enacted a Constitution in which disability issues are covered in the bill of rights and that it ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of persons with disabilities, Mphoko needs to move with swiftness to update his knowledge on disability.

As rightly captured by journalists, disability rights activists were extremely riled by Mphoko’s statement.

I will however, submit that the media projected an image of very angry activists who unfortunately in that state were unable to articulate with clarity why his statement was out of line on disability development.

History of disability shows that disability activists have been completely angered and offended in many material respects and many times.

However, evidence abounds to the fact that when persons with disabilities take their arguments with clarity at an intellectual level, they achieve more than what they can achieve when they respond angrily.

In my view, it is better for the disability activists to be portrayed as giving substance rather than to be portrayed as fuming.

Closely linked to that, Mphoko’s statement also showed that there is need for disability activists to continuously help journalists to update their knowledge on disability so that they are also able to write with clarity on such issues.

I shall here give a very interesting example of a very thought-provoking analysis on the same subject that was done by Wilbert Mukori.

The writer was not dealing with disability but with the general implications of Mphoko’s statement. In his conclusion, Mukori states, “We have able-bodied citizens led by mentally-challenged leaders.”

In my view as a disability rights activist, such a statement might mean that we are back to square one in the construction of an inclusive society through our media.

The second incident where the Mphoko interacted with disability was when he is said to have invited the disabled people’s organisations, disabled people in Bulawayo to air their grievances especially on employment matters.

I am a fervent believer in dialogue and it is my conviction that dialogue is the beginning of development.

Even in cases of war, resolution normally comes after dialogue. I am reliably informed that the meeting was fruitful as it gave people the voice. I am also hopeful that it was a learning point for the vice president.

However, I would be happier to know if there were working steps that were proposed and even tangible result areas that were set. Without those, such meetings end up becoming talk shows between the victims and the government officials.

With that, I congratulate the VP for boldly tackling disability although in one instance quite badly.

Our activism, I contend, must not be directed on silencing people who offer their views on disability no matter how wayward such views may go.

However, I strongly feel that it is imperative for government officials especially members of the executive to update their knowledge on disability and also move beyond proper disability friendly speech to disability inclusive actions.

Concerning the Mphoko’s meeting with persons with disabilities, I assure you that we will be watching to see if in the next three months or so, we can have anything to write home about.

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