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Madagascar: Disability--Shame, Honour Or Reality?

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Disability World, Issue No. 25, September-November 2004.

"Is having a disability shameful?" This is the question that always comes to my mind when I have seen disabled people who do not accept their disability and refuse to identify themselves as they are.

As I mentioned in my previous articles, I was actively involved in the passing of the bill, Law no. 97-044, which today governs the particular situation of people with disabilities in Madagascar. At the time, it was necessary to undertake a large campaign of sensitization to disability rights, not only with government and parliamentary officials, but also with people with disabilities. And I identified two distinct attitudes coming from my disabled compatriots:

  • 2/3 of them, who are in a precarious financial situation and unemployed, are motivated to rejoin the movement to fight for access to the rights of people with disabilities;

  • The remaining 1/3, who are disabled intellectuals earning a good living, are not at all interested in questions pertaining to disability.

Action or Advocacy?

I was very curious to find out the reasons for their lack of interest, and I questioned them. The answers are practically identical, based on the belief that disability is not a barrier to going to school, learning, working or playing; it is just an obstacle to be overcome, after which it no longer exists. They even added: "It is preferable to take action, rather than to advocate or make demands. We have succeeded in this difficult context, so why can't you?"

The difficult context mentioned above entails the inaccessibility of both public and private buildings and infrastructure, the absence of various allowances and benefits, and the lack of proper accommodations or programs prevalent in Madagascar to this day.

Rejecting Reality or Disability?

Who would not praise a disabled person who succeeds in this context?

However, to say that one is not disabled, and to reject any form of collaboration with other disabled persons, I find this attitude shameful and disgraceful.

Overcoming a disability does not mean physically ignoring it. Whether one likes it or not, the disability is an integral part of the body, like skin colour, for example. How could one tell a black man that he is white when in fact he isn't, or a dwarf that he is slender and svelte when he is the opposite? Whether he is rich or poor, intellectual or illiterate, the physical aspect remains unchanged and one has to accept reality, otherwise one does not know oneself, one harbours false illusions and risks having problems relating with others.

Neither Shame Nor Honour

On the other hand, we can completely overcome the disability in our way of thinking, of acting, of seeing things because this is a matter of will. This is why I readily admire disabled people who strive to succeed and who don't forget that they are physically disabled. Disability is neither a shame nor an honour; it is a state of being and one must accept it.

For the inauguration of the Sembana Mijoro Center, which I head, I invited the local officials of the 6th district. The mayoral delegate, the tax collector, the police commissioner, the district president, the postal manager ... all came except for the parliamentary representative, himself disabled, who had sent his assistant to take his place.

After the ceremony, she ended up confiding in me her anger and sadness that the representative had chosen to forgo his duty by not attending. She kept repeating, "He should have come here instead of going to a workers' union meeting 75 km. out of town, because this is the district which he was chosen to represent, and in light of his disability, he should encourage such an initiative, if only by showing up."

When I went to see him, he told me that he works for everyone and not just for the disabled. Being close to them reminds him of his disability, and he doesn't want that. What was I to do but to go back and add him to the number of disabled intellectuals who are ashamed of their disability?

Imagine If ...

Imagine if this representative, along with all the doctors, Chief Executive Officers, lawyers and teachers we know who have disabilities would join us to demand the enforcement of bill no. 97-044! This would mean a lot, if only in reducing the time spent to consider the case and in changing the image that officials have of us. There are times when some ministry officials have told us clearly that, if you want to hurry things along, you secure the support of influential people who agree with your cause.

Meanwhile, we continue to struggle for access to the rights of people with disabilities, with or without the support of those influential people. We are confident that the day will come when all our efforts will be crowned with success.

Conclusion

It is evident that I cannot force people to demonstrate the same fervour, the same conviction as I in the struggle for access to the rights of people with disabilities. I simply ask all disabled persons (compatriots or not) to stand together with their peers who are in need of support. The chances which life gives each of us are not always equal, hence the need to help one another, to hold hands.

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