The Misrepresentation of Disability

BY: Esther Akua Gyamfi
The author - Esther Akua Gyamfi

Recently, Ghana joined the international community to observe the 2015 International Year of Persons with disabilities.

The day was marked as a day for all; with a focus on policies and programmes that were executed to enable persons with disabilities to get their self-respect, rights, welfare and security in the society.

In so doing, the occasion was used to deliberate on and to confront the issues that unnecessarily restrict persons with disabilities in all aspects of their life. In this light, this article discusses the misrepresentation of disability in the Ghanaian traditional set up.

Distressfully, ignorance and the fear of the unknown contributed to the inaccurate presentation of disability under Ghanaian traditions and custom; thus producing prejudiced perceptions on disability.

Therefore, most Ghanaian traditional belief and customs do not portray disability as a natural part of human diversity.

Apparently, these perceptions continue to influence most of the current treatment of persons with disabilities and the practice that portray them as objects of charity and medical treatment in the society.

The discourse affirms persons with disabilities as citizens who have rights and are able to claim those rights as active members of the society.

The Misrepresentation of disability under the remnants of tradition and Past belief

Before the advent of scientific medicine in the then Gold Coast which is present day Ghana, some traditional communities banished or ill-treated persons with visual impairments while others accorded them special privileges.

In a comparative analysis, other traditional settings by their cultures also completely rejected persons with impairments, in other communities they were outcasts, while in some cultural set up they were treated as economic liabilities and grudgingly kept alive by their families.

The reasons accorded for such ill-treatment includes the perception that, children with impairments are symbols of curses befalling the whole family.

The family therefore perceived children who meet such affronts to bring shame to the whole family, hence their rejection by the family and the community.

In other traditional settings, persons with impairments were tolerated and treated in incidental ways, while in other cultures they were given respected status and allowed to participate to the fullest extent of their capabilities.

This heterogeneous treatment account for instances in which some children with severe impairments were abandoned on riverbanks or near the sea or in the forest so that such animal-like children could return to what was believed to be their own kind.

Also some traditional beliefs frowned on impairments such as amputations; loss of total sight, total hearing and total speech; and physical dysfunction. Whilst children who were weak or having developmental functioning contrary to the normal human development were considered inferior.

In contrast, some traditional group treated people with cognitive or sensory impairments with awe. They perceived them to be retarded persons who were reincarnations of a deity. Hence, they were always treated with great kindness, gentleness and patience.

These inaccurate presentation of disability in most of our traditional set ups produced negative attitudes towards those with disabilities; acting as a barrier to their inclusiveness in the society.

Research shows that there is limited literature available on the development and formation of these inaccurate information on disability under our traditional belief. The mind boggling concern therefore is, ‘where and what are the substantive sources of these inaccurate presentation of disability?’

Studies show that in line with oral tradition, information on disability were transmitted orally from one generation to another. It is sad that impairments and disability as presented under the remnants of tradition have suffered the inevitable blow of distortion, misunderstanding and inaccuracy as suffered by oral tradition.
Thus, the remnants of tradition have lost the well-meaning intentions of the traditional perception of disability and its legal validity, if any existed.

A life of Uncertainty

Negative attitudes towards those with disabilities stem from the general Ghanaian traditional belief which attributes causes of disabilities to witchcraft, juju and supernatural forces. Regrettably, these perceptions create doubt about their citizenship and human rights, which usually deny them of their civic responsibilities to Ghana. Additionally, these perceptions affect the degree to which they are accepted within society.

Therefore, children who are met by these negative beliefs and attitudes can hardly develop to their full potentials. They get less attention, less stimulation, less education, less medical care, less upbringing and sometimes less nourishment than other children.

Negative attitudes relegate them to the background while positive attitudes and support systems enable them to actively participate in society. Essentially, an inclusive society promotes a developed and sustainable society.

Concluding Observation

The inaccurate presentation of disability in our society produced negative perceptions and attitudes towards persons with disabilities. These negative attitudes are stifling programmes and policies meant to create an inclusive society.

Disability Rights is compelling every Ghanaian to consider how disability is presented in our communities; and modify our perception if necessary, to reflect disability as an evolving concept and part of human diversity. Remarkably, real life experiences of few persons with disabilities in our society who had the required support are living up to their civic responsibilities in Ghana. This affirms that disability is part of human diversity.

The author is an International and Comparative Disability Law and Policy Lawyer
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