The beginning was a bit serendipitous. I had decided to study abroad in South Africa and was lucky enough to be offered a course in Community Engagement. I took it, not sure what to expect, and was placed with mentally handicapped women who had been institutionalized their whole lives. Given free reign to create any type of program that I saw fit, I quickly developed a counseling/self-esteem curriculum that encouraged the women to think freely about their situation and to find ways to feel good about themselves. Six months passed and as we all embraced with teary goodbyes, the women explaining just what they had gained from my work, I had an epiphany: I wanted to become a professional social worker.
With a whet pallet, I continued my social work journey in the Philippines. The community center where I worked focused on providing positive activities for both boys and girls but my placement was specifically with the girls and I worked hard to support them. We devoted an entire week to sex education, spent hours making bracelets to sell at a fair, and rewarded ourselves with days at the beach. We learned about nutrition and I helped them with their homework each night. After homework was done we would all gather around and finish the night off with a round of karaoke. Every day cemented the thought that I wanted to be a social worker.
As the dust settled from my trip in East Asia, I was lucky enough to be nominated for a scholarship program in India. I spent months preparing appropriate learning materials and lesson plans. As we landed in Calcutta I realized that I had never really seen such omnipresent poverty. The streets were lined with beggars and trash. Everywhere you looked there was dirt and people visibly looked famished. We took our materials and lessons to local orphanages that were choked with children. Most of these were disabled and had been abandoned at birth; they were struggling to simply stay alive. They had never been properly taught and were incredibly responsive when given attention. Within three days time I had worked with Raki, a young girl with Cerebral Palsy, long enough to increase her fine motor skills ten fold. She was finally able to pick up a cup! And the drive to become a social worker amplified.
Throughout the rest of my college years I focused on getting to know as much as I could about the field of social work. I began volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters and learned about the pitfalls of our social work system though my “little” and her family. I played afternoon sports with adults with disabilities who were in the system because they were unable to live alone. I read about social workers, their passions, successes and failures. I talked with social workers about their day to day experiences, sympathizing with their frustrations and sharing in their successes. As my understanding of social work deepened, so did my desire to become a social worker.
Finishing college, I did a quick survey of my options and decided to join the Peace Corps. Though my exact designation here is “Primary Teacher Trainer”, I think “Social Worker” is a much more appropriate title. I spend most mornings teaching Lifeskills to orphans and vulnerable children. My afternoons are spent creating a vocational school for deaf youth. I have worked with incarcerated men, taught English to illiterate adults and shown 18 year olds how to work a computer. I’ve learned Uganda Sign Language to be able to teach the local deaf population about HIV/AIDS as well as simply how to read and write. I have worked with a local NGO to sell re-usable menstrual pads to encourage girls to stay in school and I have marched in parades in support of people with disabilities.
In the past five years that I have been pursuing social work I have learned so many things. I have learned that I am one of the most blessed people I know and therefore I must help others. I have learned that doing what you think is best is not always best for the community. I have learned patience and understanding. I have learned that people may not share your race, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, class or culture but they do share your innate desire to be happy in life. I have learned that progress is slow, and that’s okay. I have learned that you have to hold on to hope and hold it tightly because some days that is the only thing that will help you through. I have learned that there are so many ways we can make the world a better place and it is up to us to make it happen. And above all I have learned to love. Love everyone, always, as much as you can. Love when you are hurt and love when you are happy. Love people when they are feeling stressed and when they are feeling successful. Love people because you can and because it feels good. I believe that the lessons I have learned about life and loving people will help me as I set off on this new journey.It will be a journey of learning and understanding. One that will equip me with the information and expertise I need to be able to make more of an impact in the world. It will be a voyage of excitement and hardship that will challenge me beyond anything I have every known. It will be a hard journey, but everything worth having is hard.
“Disability is not inability” is the slogan that they have written on the wall at Masaka School for Children with Special Needs, and although most of the children would say that this statement is true, people in the community see it differently. I have spent the past two years at a small primary school in rural Uganda working with deaf children. I have worked tirelessly to teach the students skills that they will be able to use throughout their lives. They now know that they have a right to education and a right to resources; they recognize that they have a right to earn a living and a right to health care. They are learning about the impact they can make in their community by spreading information about being assertive, having self-esteem and knowing their facts about HIV/AIDS. They are aware that they deserve equal opportunities as their hearing peers and they are working hard to let everyone else know it as well. But try as they may, they are still social outcasts within the community. People call them “kasilu” which means stupid in the local language. When I spend afternoons grading the English papers they have written, my neighbors refuse to believe that the deaf can write. Many of them were abandoned at birth, with their fathers claiming “No one in my clan has ever been deaf, so this can’t be my child.” They have been mercilessly prayed for and “healed” by local witch doctors, only to find out that they are still unable to hear. Against all odds, these children are learning and are empowered.
There are myriad causes of social, economic, academic and physical exclusion of people with disabilities. Many of these exclusions begin with the simple underestimation of abilities. Because of their presumed “disabilities”, people with different intellectual, physical or sensory abilities are automatically assumed incapable of matching the capacity of their “normal” peers. Because of these negative beliefs, people with disabilities are oftentimes not given a chance to live up to their potential. In addition to low expectations by society, a lack of adequate facilities that are well equipped for the physically disabled compounds the issue. Sloped entrances and elevators are innovations that have only recently been required in building codes, and are virtually non-existent anywhere except in the first world. It is only within the last 30 years in the United States, and as little as 3 years in the developing world, that the government has begun supporting people with disabilities through its legislation and procedure. But even as I write this paper there are governments that refuse to support individuals within their own nation who have disabilities. The final, but probably most pervasive contribution to the exclusion of people with disabilities, is poverty. Poverty is not only one of the greatest causes of disability; it is also a painful effect. Families living in poverty often have a difficult time getting proper health care and diagnosis to their children. This can cause further complications in the future. Poverty is also a consequence of disability because people with disabilities are often unable to secure well paying jobs to support themselves and their families.
I was first introduced to the problem of social exclusion of mentally handicapped people when I was studying in South Africa. I spent 6 months working at an institution with women who had been institutionalized most of their lives. They had no contact with the “outside world” except through the few weeks they spent celebrating holidays with their families. My time there was spent on a project to increase their self-esteem and basic lifeskills and I was finally able to fully understand the ways in which a disability can impact ones life. All of the women I worked with had the same life goals as me: go to school, get a job I enjoy, get married and start a family. And all of these women had their goals stolen from them the moment they were institutionalized. It was then I began questioning the way we allow people with disabilities to integrate into society.
Two years after my experience in South Africa, I traveled to India to work with children who were mentally and physically handicapped and had been abandoned. The way these children were kept can barely be called living. Thrown into orphanages as babies, most of them had never set foot outside the building they were forced to live in. At the age of 18, many of them were sent out onto the streets where they would become beggars for lack of any other way to sustain themselves. It was during this trip that I finally understood just how much society excludes those with disabilities.
I continued my work with people with disabilities during my junior and senior years of college, and was able to compare and contrast the way people with disabilities were treated in different parts of the world. My final experience with people with disabilities has been here in Uganda, where I have spent the last two years working at a school for children with special needs. Throughout all of my travels my eyes have been opened to the pain and suffering children with special needs go through every day.
We can begin addressing the problem of segregating people with disabilities by first restructuring the way they are perceived. When looking at disability, a person can choose one of two perspectives, the medical model or the social model. The first perspective, the medical model, is governed by the activities that a person is able or unable to do. In this model, the focus is on the person and what they and their doctors can do to alter the course of their disability. The focus is on changing the individual to make them better fit into society’s ideal of a “normal functioning person.” The second perspective, the social model, states that disability is the lack of a society to conform to the social norms of all people. Its focus is on changing society to make it recognize and accept all people in spite of their differences. Using the second model we are able to see that the only reason people are categorized as disabled is because they cannot perform all of the functions that we have said are necessary to live in our society. It can clearly be seen that the problem is not within the ability of a person to think, act or understand, but it is within the boundaries we have built as a society.
Starting a similar program to the one I have create in Uganda could be a great way to empower young disabled people in the United States. Working together with the community, we could begin helping disabled people realize their own potential. This can include classroom work, after school health talks and vocational training in a number of different trades. This will also encompass beginning support groups for people with disabilities and starting family groups to help families help their children. When speaking of adults with special needs, we need to begin realizing that they are capable of working and start finding them appropriate places of work. But it can’t stop with just the people with disabilities and their families; for these young people to be empowered we must continue to include the community. Information sessions for the community should be set up so they can learn about the different programs offered to disabled youth. Beginning “showcase days” where people in the area can purchase or simply see items made by disabled youth is yet another way to inform the community of their potential.
There are innumerable reasons the people with disabilities are excluded from our communities. If we work together to find and implement solutions we can help disabled people to live meaningful and productive lives within their communities.