Understanding the importance of Disability Awareness and how you can get involved

Life Healthcare encourages all South Africans to break the stigma around disabilities

There are more than one billion people with physical and mental disabilities in the world who must overcome challenges every day. A major challenge is encountering stigmatisation. As a society, we are all different and must recognise the importance of acceptance. Disability awareness is very important when it comes to breaking stereotypes and overcoming preconceptions regarding disabilities.[1] This is a message from the World Health Organisation (WHO) which Life Rehabilitation, a leading provider of acute physical rehabilitation in South Africa, is highlighting to educate the public during International Day of persons with disabilities on 3 December 2017.

Disability awareness in the workplace involves educating both employers and employees about disability. Lack of facility access is a poor reflection of the employer’s attitude towards creating a safe environment for differently abled individuals. The purpose of awareness is to create a better understanding of disability as a whole in respect of the Employment Equity Act. This can include understanding some of the different types of disabilities as well as promoting understanding of the impact that language and appropriate etiquette can have in preventing discrimination in the workplace”, says Dr Riyas Fadal.

In some cases, the lack of access to health and rehabilitation services, education and employment and the high cost of medical care limit the ability of people with disabilities to fully participate in their societies. International Day of Persons with Disabilities seeks to encourage and promote empowerment, and helps to create real opportunities for people with disabilities. According to a Census 2011 report titled, ‘Profile of persons with disabilities in South Africa’, 7.5 percent of the South African population (2,870,130 people) live with some form of a disability[3].This figure highlighted an increase from the 2% of people living with disability that was reported in 2001. 

Living with a disability

In May 2003, Thomas Mashia’s life changed forever. Thomas, a 42-year-old father, had gone to collect his wife at the hair salon when he was shot by two criminals who had just robbed the salon. He was taken to the Life Rehabilitation Unit based at Life Eugene Marais Hospital for treatment and surgery. Thomas was initially bitter and angry with what had happened to him, however, after he went through the physiotherapy, psychological therapy and occupational therapy he came to terms with what happened and has a positive outlook on life. Thomas’ life is not defined by his disability. “There’s lots I can do, and there are some things that I can’t do,” said Thomas. “I can cook, clean and drive myself.”

As a person living with a disability, Thomas has experienced some barriers.  He has, however, found an opportunity to use his disability to raise awareness and educate others. In 2005 he started a show on Ikwekwezi FM to educate and motivate people living with disabilities. Through his work on the show, Thomas was awarded the Disabled Activist of the Year award. This gave him the confidence to continue to pursue his dreams and realise that there is life beyond disability.

“Thomas is a wonderful example of how walking a journey with your patient to help them recover and adapt can truly change their outlook and encourage them to be more than just their disability,” explains Christi-Marie Botes, Occupational Therapist at Life Healthcare Eugene Marais Hospital in Pretoria. It is important that a patient is educated about their condition and taught techniques that will assist them in achieving independence and maintaining a satisfying quality of life that will encourage them to focus on their ability, rather than their disability. 

“Thomas is a wonderful example of how walking a journey with your patient to help them recover and adapt can truly change their outlook and encourage them to be more than just their disability.” – Christi-Marie Botes.

Advice for interacting with the differently abled

  • Don’t make assumptions about people or their disabilities.

Don’t assume you know what someone wants, what he feels, or what is best for him. If you have a question about what to do, how to do it, what language or terminology to use, or what assistance to offer, ask him.

  • Talk directly to the user, not to the interpreter, attendant, or friend.

You don’t need to ignore the others entirely; just make sure to focus your interaction with the user. When a user who is deaf has an interpreter, the user will look at the interpreter as you are talking. It might take a little extra effort to remember to face the user rather than the interpreter.

  • Speak normally.

Some people have a tendency to talk louder and slower to people with disabilities; don’t. Don’t assume that because a person has one disability, that he also has a cognitive disability or is hard of hearing.

  • Use “people-first” language when referring to people with disabilities.

People-first language means put the person first and the disability second. For example, say “a man who is blind” rather than “a blind man,” and “a woman who uses a wheelchair” instead of “a wheelchair-bound woman.