Dispelling myths around disability

Disability Rights Awareness Month is held annually from 3 November, culminating on 3 December which is designated by the United Nations as the International Day for Disabled Persons. While awareness campaigns abound throughout the year, it is at this time that special attention is given to issues affecting persons with disabilities and their families.

One of these issues is the many myths surrounding disability, based mostly on perceptions or stereotypes that society has developed over centuries rather than hard facts. To the uninitiated, these may not seem important, but persons with disabilities are often discriminated against through the continued reinforcement of these incorrect views on all things related to disability.

It is commonly known amongst persons with disabilities that the single most disabling barrier is people’s attitudes. Legislation, and the enforcing thereof, is something that can be taken up and lobbied for to a successful conclusion. People’s attitudes, on the other hand, are far more difficult to change. Nobody is born prejudiced or discriminatory; it is learnt behaviour, taught to us from early childhood. Attitudes are years in the making and we acknowledge that it may take many years to combat these stereotypes and misperceptions.

Here are just a few of the very many myths that abound on disability, as well as their related facts, to help you understand disability a little better –

Myth: It can’t happen to me
Fact: 15% of South Africans have a disability

Myth: One drink won’t harm me
Fact: Alcohol during pregnancy causes permanent brain damage

Myth: A guide-dog is a cute pet
Fact: A guide-dog is a highly trained working animal & should not be petted

Myth: All deaf people use sign language
Fact: The majority of people with hearing loss use assistive hearing devices

Myth: People with mental illness are dangerous
Fact: Correct medication controls the disease

Myth: Stroke happens to old people
Fact: Stroke is a lifestyle disease not linked to age

Myth: The best way to help someone who is depressed is to try to cheer them up
Fact: The best way to help a depressed person is to help them get diagnosed and treated

Perhaps you have harboured some of these myths for your whole life and to learn the truth about them may cause you to dismiss them as opinion or hearsay. And that is your right. However, wouldn’t it be prudent to change your lifestyle now and know that you have reduced your risk of having a stroke than to ignore it, only to regret that decision a few years from now? Or refrain from consuming alcohol for the 9 months of your pregnancy than face watch your child deal daily with the consequences of your decision?

Similarly, taking heed of these facts may prevent you from, even unknowingly, discriminating against somebody based on your perceptions of their abilities or rights.

Let us be the change. Let us show others that we recognise their rights and respect them for the people they are, not for whom we perceive them to be.

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