Disability stigma driving cosmetic surgery ‘treatment’

Disability
Zimbabwe
28.06.16-Given-Thom-590x393.jpg

Given Thom © Nosizi Nyoni

Who can forget the hyperinflation that hit Zimbabwe in 2008? Peaking at some 80 billion per cent, it left a reputational legacy that painted Zimbabwe as the world’s most dysfunctional country.

Whole countries should never be underestimated in such a way. Look hard enough and you will be reminded that – like everywhere – great things were and continue to be achieved by citizens of what remains a largely neglected society.

Take technology and healthcare for example. Every month in Zimbabwe, complex prosthetic limb surgery is performed by local doctors trained in the southern African nation.

Victims of landmines are being enabled to walk in Zimbabwe using the same techniques and many of the same parts – imported from Europe – as those harnessed by athletes looking forward to the Paralympic Games.

There is a common misconception here that disability can be contagious

When a person with a disability wants access to a technology that can greater enable them it is a natural cause for celebration when it arrives.

However, in Zimbabwe demand is not just coming from individuals wanting legs to help them navigate sun-cracked roads independently.

Demand is also coming from those reporting a lifetime of social exclusion due purely to their physical appearance.

Given Thom, a talented artist who lost his arms when electrocuted as a teenager, is among them.

RELATED: We are able - time to rethink disability, New Internationalist magazine November 2013, Issue 467

He has just received new prosthetic arms at a cost of $6,000 following orthotic surgery in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city.

Mr Thom, an orphan, is hoping to be offered an art college place later this year after making a short video showcasing his talent.

However the video will not involve him drawing using his hands, as the limbs are purely cosmetic.

Given Thom being fitted for prosthetic arms.

Nosizi Nyoni

The 22-year-old is an accomplished mouth and foot painting artist. Put simply, he does not need hands or arms to create work of a saleable standard to make a living.

‘The biggest problem is stigma,’ explains Greaterman Chivandire, a development worker who helps disabled people access work opportunities on behalf of Leonard Cheshire Disability Zimbabwe.

‘There is a common misconception here that disability can be contagious. When Given was younger, parents would not let their children play with him.’

Climate change and the state of the economy are out of the public’s control. But can stigma be redressed?

‘Now that he is older, he is still defined first by his disability and not by his art. Given is called chirema and other names.’ The term translates from the local Shona dialect to mean something between ‘useless’ and ‘burden’.

Given feels he can confound expectations with the cosmetic arms themselves, saying he believes he will in fact learn to manipulate them in a way so that ‘I can feed myself.’ His surgeon is sceptical but concedes he ‘might surprise people’ over time.

Food shortages are again predicted for Zimbabwe this year regardless. Impact from this year’s drought has now taken hold. Another new currency has been proposed by the Robert Mugabe government too, bringing fears hyperinflation will bite again.

Climate change and the state of the economy are out of the public’s control. But can stigma be redressed?

‘Perceptions are slowly changing,’ explains Mr Chivandire, ‘but what Zimbabwe needs is more role models, people who show that disabled people have a capacity that they are often assumed not to have. If Given can achieve success as an artist, he can show just that.’