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South Africa

new internationalist
issue 233 - July 1992

Can the disability movement help create a society that is more just for all of us?
Three reports from the frontline by disabled activists in Lebanon, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe.

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[image, unknown] I come from Lebanon - a country which has been ravaged by wars since 1975. More than 150,000 people have been killed, 300,000 injured and tens of thousands disabled. Up to 1985 there was plenty of talk but little real peace-movement action against the war. The violence was creating a climate in which people were afraid to take any kind of action.

But it got to the point where violence reached everyone everywhere and you were as much at risk by doing nothing as by doing something. Whether at home or on the street there was a constant danger from bullets, shells or car bombs. The disability movement took the initiative and launched the first peaceful protest against the war. This galvanized the Lebanese peace movement with disabled people out in front. Non-disabled people asked themselves: 'If disabled people can do it what are we waiting for?'

We took to the streets of Beirut on 30 November 1985. The idea was to go to the demarcation line between the two fighting factions and have a 24-hour hunger strike. We started marching. Soon firing started and we were caught in the crossfire. Our 24-hour hunger strike turned into a three-day one as we were forced to take refuge in a neighbouring building until the fighting stopped! Luckily none of us was killed.

In 1986 we started a much larger campaign - a protest march stretching from the north of the country to the south. We the disabled - the living martyrs of the war - would cross all the different militia barriers to show our determination to resist. We made contact with Disabled People International (DPI) which was the first international organization to fully support us. I then realized that there was an international disability movement and that working together could create a difference. On 12 October 1987 we started marching. The march took us four days. We marched 300 kilometres - marching through cities and travelling by car between them. We set out with 100 people, half disabled - the other half young, feminist and non-violent. We did not put out much publicity to avoid militia reaction against us. But word got out anyway and by the last day thousands were cheering us on! Here were disabled people talking not about their rights, but about the rights of society. It was the first time in Lebanon, in the Arab world, and maybe in the entire world that disabled people came out to champion a social cause for which nobody else was doing anything. It was a turning point in the history of disability in Lebanon. At a stroke we moved from being a marginalized group that has to be 'looked after' to a political force to be reckoned with.

We now want to strengthen our work as a disabled group. We need to create more independent living centres under the control of disabled people to provide us with services and support that we can control ourselves. I also think it is very important that we do not focus only on disability problems. We must look at other areas of society; create coalitions of different marginalized groups, ethnic groups, feminists, environmentalists and others and champion social causes. If we want to prevent disability we must oppose wars, oppose violence as these are major causes of disability. By creating coalitions we can enter society as an empowered group with a lot to contribute.

In every one of us there is prejudice against disabled people. Even I wonder whether I have a totally open attitude towards other disabilities. Just yesterday I made a remark which could have been insulting to mentally disabled people. These are things we do because we don't think about them. We must learn to think carefully.

by Nawaf Kabbara, President of the National Association for Disabled People in Lebanon


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When the Sandinistas came to power in 1979 they preached equality and freedom, giving disabled people in Nicaragua hope for their own liberation. In the words of disabled activist Patricia Sergovia:

'The Sandinistas represented a different way of treating people and this was very encouraging for us'. Soon disabled citizens were given civil rights laid down in law and a mass movement of disabled people, the Organization for Revolutionary Disabled (ORD) was born. It rapidly became a force in Nicaraguan politics as the radical representative of disabled people. The disabled revolutionaries set up their own wheelchair manufacturing co-operative and started producing the kind of wheelchair people actually wanted - light, hard wearing and suited to Managua's rutted streets. It sold for a third of the price of imported ones. Other self-help disability groups sprung up across the country to provide goods and employment for disabled people. One group, Solidez, set up a carpentry workshop.

After the Revolution the number of disabled people increased - due to the activities of US-backed Contra rebels. Meanwhile the Government was working at reducing some of the major social causes of disability by pumping energy and resources into health, nutrition and literacy programs.

When in 1989 the centre-right UNO coalition party defeated the Sandinistas and Violeta Chamorro came to power, there were mixed feelings among disabled Nicaraguans. Some felt that the fact that Chamorro is herself disabled and conducted most of the campaign from a wheelchair might help the cause of disabled people. They were wrong. Within her first year, the budget for the government department providing support and rehabilitation to ex-service women and men was decimated. Disabled people were thrust back to the pre-Revolutionary days of begging on the streets. The health of the nation has deteriorated as social programs have been slashed and inflation soared. Polio, dengue, malaria and malnutrition are all on the increase. Finally in the summer of 1990 a group of disabled people and their families vented their frustration by marching on the Presidential palace in Managua. They later took control of the country's TV station for 24 hours in order to air their grievances.

In spite of the problems now facing them the disability movement is still alive and kicking in Nicaragua - and continues to give inspiration to disability movements the world over.

by Mark Todd, journalist and disability consultant who recently visited Nicaragua to work on a TV film about disability.


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At the time other Zimbabweans were fighting our war of independence there was a group of people plotting to liberate themselves from institutionalization. These were disabled people. I was one of them.

There were about 10 of us living in the Jairos Jin institution. We were there because our parents had taken us there when we were children. They didn't want us to live with our families. My father sent all my brothers and sisters to school and I stayed at home doing nothing, until I was 15 and someone told him about the Jairos Jiri.

We learned the evils of institutionalization first hand: like being told when to sleep and when to wake up, being manipulated by the charity industry, seeing the non-disabled staff using disability to enrich themselves. How could we destroy the evil system? We decided to form our own organization that we could control; an organization that would help us become full human beings with rights and interests.

Like the nationalist movement our new organization faced a lot of opposition. It came from Jairos Jiri itself and other charitable groups who felt that we were out to duplicate their activities, and that we were a bunch of ungrateful cripples. Some of them even told the white government that we were a political party in disguise and that we were receiving orders from those comrades fighting in the war of liberation. This was a big lie, of course.

When independence was won in 1980 the freedom fighters came home and many of them were disabled. These old combatants did not become part of the new leadership of Zimbabwe. Nor were there any government plans or programmes for them - to say nothing of the rest of the disabled. Eventually with international aid the Zimbabwean Government built a huge rehabilitation centre called RUWA, especially for disabled ex-combatants. It was like a prison. Love was forbidden along with visits from girlfriends or boyfriends. We in the disability movement had opposed RUWA because it segregated disabled people. Armed guards were posted at the gates for 24 hours a day monitoring the movement and behaviour of the disabled ex-freedom fighters. Finally some of the inmates rebelled, the institution was shut down and the disabled thrown out. Now most live as street beggars. They may well ask themselves: 'Why did we go there and fight? To lose legs, arms and everything at the end of it all?'

Today, almost 12 years after independence, the struggle of disabled people continues. Disabled people's affairs are ignored or come very low on the political agenda. Our problems were not solved by the war of liberation because ours is a different war altogether. It is a complicated struggle, but we understand the process. We want to be involved in the development process and not treated as charity cases. It is sad that our government and the international community continues to support charities in this country. Disabled people in Zimbabwe only want equal opportunities and full participation. We want to enjoy the same rights as those enjoyed by other citizens. We must keep working and using our organizations as vehicles of self-help, self-expression and self-representation. We need to fight for freedom, full participation, and independent living. We are not alone in this struggle. Like the war of liberation which relied heavily on international support, so does our own struggle.

by Joshua Malinga, Secretary General of the Southern African Federation of the Disabled and chair of Disabled People's International.


Mike - 'coming out' as disabled

The occasion was the World Congress of Rehabilitation International. The venue: Winnipeg, Canada. My first trip outside my troubled South African homeland, it was a watershed event in my life.

Disabled by a spinal injury 10 years before and much of my body still paralysed, I still insisted on walking without my stick - the symbol of my differentness. My disability was very much an individual issue. Of course it was an injustice - after all, why me? But I still had an inexplicable feeling of guilt...

I was employed as a social worker with the Quadriplegic Association of South Africa, an organization which though started by disabled people was very 'white'. How was I going to explain a 'white' self-help organization to non-South Africans who didn't share our national obsession with race? At that time there were simply no circumstances under which a black disabled person in South Africa would meet a white disabled person, let alone discuss mutual problems and joint actions to resolve them.

At the Winnipeg Congress I saw the international rehabilitation industry at its best. We were graced with countless disability 'experts' parading their extravagant models of rehabilitation, sophisticated multi-disciplinary teams of medical and paramedical professionals, and claiming impressive success rates under the most severe conditions of underdevelopment. To an isolated, naive, white South African disabled social worker, it was a truly inspiring experience.

But it took only short while to notice that something more important was happening. There were a great number of disabled people at the Winnipeg Congress, from all over the world. Quite a few were speakers, and many were mounting a serious challenge to the views of the professionals. This was very new. The Canadian disability-rights movement published a daily news-sheet, analyzing the conference events from a radically different perspective. They pointed out that rehabilitation occupied only a very short period in the lives of disabled people, reaching only a privileged few. The vast majority of disabled people in the world suffered from chronic isolation, stigma, poverty, disadvantage and powerlessness. And no amount of charity and rehabilitation was likely to change that. Disability was a question of power and the allocation of resources in society. The ultimate liberation struggle.

The message of the disability-rights movement was that until disabled people were free, no-one was free. This perspective was so much more powerful and believable than the traditional approach that my immediate response at the congress was to stop mentioning my social-worker credentials and rather to exaggerate my limp! Then came the crunch: the disabled delegates, who were becoming more 'empowered' by the day, demanded that 50 per cent of the decision-making board of Rehabilitation International should consist of people with disabilities. When this was refused, the disabled delegation met long into the night and a steering committee was elected to form Disabled People's International (DPI).

On the return flight I told my wife that I wanted to play a role in the initiation of a disability-rights movement in South Africa. But even then I understood that this would need to happen in Soweto, rather than in my own comfortable white South Africa. And it has happened with the setting up of a disabled people's movement of all South Africans - Disabled People South Africa - which has from its earliest days supported the greater liberation struggle. We understand that until a truly democratic system is achieved, all struggles will be sidelined. We have been all too aware that apartheid policies and practices have not only contributed to our number but have caused untold hardship and suffering for the majority of disabled South Africans. Our greatest fear is that while apartheid is now being dismantled, it will remain intact for disabled South Africans.

Mike du Toit works with Disabled People South Africa.

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