Stigma and discrimination targeting people with disabilities (PWDs) is a contentious issue in Malawi as it is the world over.
Concern Universal (CU) programme manager Esther Mweso says PWDs include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments resulting from any physical or mental health conditions which may hinder their full and effective participation in society on equal basis with others.
Mweso observes that PWDs suffer various challenges in the society. She says, on one hand, the disabled struggle with symptoms and disabilities that result from diseases, natural causes and others.
She states that, on the other hand, PWDs are challenged by the stereotypes and prejudice that result from misconceptions about their situation.
“As a result of both, PWDs are robbed of the opportunities that define a quality life: good jobs, safe housing, satisfactory healthcare, and affiliation with a diverse group of people,” explains Mweso.
Social psychologists and sociologists say the impact of stigma and discrimination is twofold: public as well as self-inflicted.
Public stigma and discrimination is the reaction that the general population has towards PWDs. While self-stigma and discrimination is the prejudice, which PWDs turn against themselves.
Mweso discloses that both felt and enacted stigma and discrimination may be understood in terms of three components: stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.
And speaking in Lilongwe two weeks ago at the official opening of the national symposium on cross-cutting issues on mainstreaming disability in the country, the CU programme manager said disability is often perceived negatively due to ignorance and some prevailing socio-cultural beliefs as well as economic factors.
The symposium was aimed at soliciting information and inputs on how best persons with disabilities can be actively involved in development activities.
Mweso said the challenges facing people with disabilities are, therefore, varied and could be in the form of violation of human rights, poverty, stigma, discrimination and exclusion.
“Disability is closely associated with poverty and has been seen to be a barrier to education, employment, access to public services and social protection. In most cases, disability has been addressed through charitable approaches without the recognition of the rights and participation of PWDs, like other citizens,” she explained.
Speaking at the same function, deputy director of Disability Programmes at the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, Felix Sapala, said it was worrying to note that years after ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), PWDs continue to face various forms of challenges in societies they live in.
Sapala said government is taking up various steps towards addressing the challenges PWDs face in the country, including failure by the same to actively participate in the socioeconomic activities of the society.
You would be excused that, in retrospect, this was an admission by the deputy director of Disability Programmes at the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare that Malawi, as a nation, has not made significant progress towards integrating and mainstreaming the needs of PWDs in the society.
It is therefore imperative that we should go beyond and probe on: Who is to blame for stigma and discrimination targeting persons with disabilities? Where is the missing link?
Mweso believes self-inflicted discrimination and stigma could be the major and most devastating factors preventing PWDs from actively participating in the social and economic development of the country.
The CU programme manager observed at the same symposium that efforts to integrate and mainstream persons with disabilities fail to bear the much-desired results because the majority of them choose to sideline themselves from their respective communities.
She explained: “We’ve observed that some of the people with disabilities don’t come out when the society asks for their input in various development activities. And this frustrates efforts to integrate and mainstream disability issues.”
Mweso said it is disheartening to note that even in a society where people have positive attitudes toward disability, which is critical for reducing stigmatisation and discrimination, PWDs themselves appear to have problems to come to terms with their situation.
This notwithstanding, the CU programme manager acknowledged that PWDs are special people with special needs.
She suggested that a sympathetic orientation towards PWDs be given to them rather than empathy.
Mweso explained that attitudes of pity or empathy towards PWDs could make them feel hopeless, more dependent and lose their sense of dignity.
“Rather, it is important for people to have empathetic attitudes and to try to understand the needs of disabled people better. Empathy allows people to view those who are different from themselves more positively,” she said.
She further recommended that government agencies such as the department of social welfare should be empowered logistically to intensify their effort in sensitising communities on disability issues as this will help reduce the erroneous impression some persons hold about disability, especially the causes.
Malawi Against Physical Disabilities (MAP) operations manager, Alex Dzinkambani, also speaking at the same symposium, said councils need to start providing resources from their own internally generated funds to support community-based rehabilitation programmes for the disabled.
Dzinkambani said this would help improve upon the already existing positive attitude and behaviour towards the disabled.
Association of People with Albinism in Malawi (Apam) executive director Boniface Massa added that government and its development partners should consciously take measures to mainstream disability issues in all developmental planning of the municipality to promote easy integration of PWDs.
Massa further emphasised the need for Malawi to fully implement and enforce the Disability Act to compel government, society, parents and guardians to provide all the needed infrastructure and resources to promote their social well-being and functioning. n