It is often stated that accessibility is the only important aspect of improving the lives of disabled people. However, while accessibility is very important, it is not the only thing that needs to be changed. In fact, it is not even the most important change that needs to be made. It is negative attitudes that disable people the most.
Many schools, shops and forms of transport are deemed inaccessible for disabled people across the world. Rightly, people are outraged at this lack of accessibility. Although creating a physically accessible world is crucial, the real improvement will be made when people’s attitudes change.
For example, imagine a scenario where a young individual in a wheelchair cannot access a school building because there is no ramp. This leads to the individual being turned away because of the wholly inadequate design of the building.
Now, imagine a scenario where, in order to enter the building, the individual is helped by a few friends over some steps. Despite the lack of accessibility, the individual is included and able to attend school in a dignified manner, with the help of some friends.
To me, the latter scenario is the best one.
Inaccessibility is often down to negative attitudes in the first place. Too often ‘accessibility’ is an excuse to exclude people. Obviously, it should be expected that every building accommodates everyone, but where this doesn’t happen, it is still possible for a disabled person to be included.
The examples above illustrate that it is the way people think that has the most disabling impact on individuals.
That is why at Disability Africa, we put a lot of time and effort into changing people’s minds. In the African Report on Children with Disabilities, it is reported that there is a number of negative beliefs about disabled people. Some believe disabled people are possessed by demons, or that they possess supernatural powers, others believe disabled people are cursed, while some exclude disabled people in fear that their impairment is contagious.
We work with local communities in a variety of different ways. We have set up parents’ support groups; we work in local schools developing ‘inclusion clubs’; we go onto local radio programmes to raise awareness of the Rights, needs and plight of disabled young people; we train people in understanding issues related to disability.
Most importantly we run playschemes that end a child’s isolation. There is no better way to change attitudes than having local volunteers work and become friends with disabled children.
We are well aware that negative attitudes take generations to change but we are already noticing a difference in the areas we work.
Overall, it is vital not to under emphasise the importance of accessible buildings, transport or other infrastructure. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that accessible buildings alone will not lead to inclusion – the only thing that will lead to real inclusion is a world without prejudice.