ZIMBABWE: Disability is much more than a physical constraint

Friday, August 31, 2007

The disabled are becoming increasingly marginalised, with the state and civil society neglecting their basic needs, says The forgotten tribe, people with disabilities in Zimbabwe, a new report.

Data for the report, recently published by Progressio, an international development agency, in collaboration with the Zimbabwe National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped, was provided by a 2006 survey based on interviews with experts on disability, and disabled people themselves.

The report noted that disabled people generally did not receive appropriate levels of healthcare, education or rights protection, and concluded that much needed to be done to reduce discrimination against, and increase opportunities for, those with disabilities.

HIV/AIDS, myths and misunderstanding

Discrimination and stigma by the public, and even family members, exposed disabled people to higher risks of sexual abuse and HIV infection.

"People with disabilities are more likely to be victims of sexual abuse and rape than their non-disabled counterparts: it came out clearly that the vulnerability of people with disabilities is high, mainly due to the prevailing economic situation, cultural beliefs, and the general abuse of people with disabilities by family members, relatives and other sexual predators," the report said.

Increased vulnerability was rooted in the belief that the disabled were not sexually active and therefore less vulnerable to HIV. But the opposite was true: "myths on curing HIV and AIDS, which proclaim that HIV-positive individuals can rid themselves of the virus by having sex with virgins, have contributed to a significant rise in the rape of children and adults with disabilities."

Stigmatisation of the disabled was highlighted by the lack of HIV/AIDS information available to them. "Most counselling and testing centres are unable to deal with people with disabilities," according to the report.

"For instance, people with visual impairments have never seen a condom, but they need to learn how to use them; they say they can use them as long as they are taught and provided with information in appropriate formats."

The authors pointed out that "No known research in Zimbabwe has managed to determine the number of people with disabilities in the country who are infected by HIV and AIDS. However, evidence suggests substantial rates of HIV infection, disease and deaths among people with disabilities."

Zimbabwe's HIV prevalence dropped from 24.6 percent in 2003 to 20.1 percent in 2005. Nonetheless, it remains one of the countries with the highest rates in the world.

"What we need are specially designed approaches focusing on people with disabilities, and in consultation with people with disabilities," Alexander Phiri, the director-general of the Southern Africa Federation of the Disabled, told IRIN.

"There is a lot of illiteracy among people with disabilities, and when almost all information is written down, how do you expect people with disabilities to understand information on HIV and AIDS?" Phiri said.

"Radio may be effective in rural areas, but what plans are there for the deaf to access such information? How, for example, do you design a programme for people with no hands to use condoms? That is why we are calling for inclusion in all these policy formulations."

No education, no employment

The laws and policies that could potentially benefit people with disabilities are in place, "however, the policies are only guiding visions, without implementation guidelines and structures. Existing legislation and policies that pertain to people with disabilities remain mere unenforceable tools," the report noted.

Zimbabwe's 1992 Disabled Persons Act (DPA) does not make provision for positive discrimination or affirmative action for disabled persons in the job market. In a country burdened with an 80 percent unemployment rate and economic meltdown, employment prospects for disabled people are particularly grim.

Poor access to education was seen as an underlying cause: "The high rate of unemployment among people with disabilities in Zimbabwe is due mainly to their lack of educational qualifications and discrimination from the employers. As has been established, many people with disabilities are denied the right to attend school," the authors commented.

"Existing special-needs education staff have low levels of professional knowledge and skills, and there are no additional capacity building courses - most people with hearing impairments are unable to receive education beyond grade seven," the report said.

"A majority of teachers that are available to teach the deaf are primary school teachers, with very few at secondary and tertiary levels."

Author: HARARE
Source: IRIN