In 1992, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the third day of December of each year as the International Day of Disabled Persons, the purpose being “to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilise support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. It also seeks to increase awareness of gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life” (Resolution 47/3).
Even though I have been in the media for a long time, having served for several years as the editor-in-chief of the English edition of the Catholic weekly, L’Effort camerounais, I do not recall ever having given serious thought to disability as an exciting topic for media coverage, nor did I ever assign a reporter to cover a story on people living with disabilities.
Like most Cameroonians, I have come to accept the generally negative view of people living with disabilities that appears so often in the Cameroonian media (written, spoken or audio-visual). Such persons are generally cloaked in negative robes as sinister, evil, violent, or simply objects of pity, curiosity, ridicule, or even objects of sexual pleasure.
President Jacques Chirac’s visit
Some years ago, the then French President, Jacques Chirac, visited Cameroon. The authorities of the two main cities of Yaoundé and Douala, which our ‘illustrious’ guest was to visit, decided that mentally-challenged persons as well as beggars and cripples were a sore sight on the streets.
Overnight, truckloads of gendarmes and police swooped down the streets of these two cities, carting away those unfortunate individuals, under the watchful and generally amused eye of the media that literally had a field day. One press coverage after another weighed in on the action, not so much on the impact it had on the disabled persons but rather on what was deemed the ‘timely’ nature of government action to rid our streets of an eyesore. It was about time, the press jubilated, for our city authorities to step in and clear our streets, not only of the physical garbage that inundates our streets, but also of ‘human’ garbage. When any attention was paid at all to the individuals in question, it was to highlight the ridiculous side of their lives. For example, humour-laden stories described how the police were chasing naked ‘mad’ people through the streets; or what a hard time the police had as they tried to lift up crippled persons from the ground so they could ‘dump’ them into the waiting trucks that carted them away to unknown locations. The important thing was to have them off the streets and as far away as possible so our ‘august’ visitor and his entourage would not accidentally see them. It was even rumoured that some cripples were dumped away in forests and villages far away from these two main cities, the reasoning apparently being that by the time they crawled their way back to the cities, if they ever did, our ‘illustrious guest’ and his entourage would have long gone back home.
For their part, the mentally challenged were confined to the mental wards of the psychiatric sections of the Laquintinie hospital in Douala and Centre Jamot hospital in Yaoundé, giving unprepared health workers much stress to cope with them. Some were even locked up in already over-crowded police and gendarme cells throughout the city. The press was around to describe for an eager readership the ridiculous side of the story.
Newspaper headlines carried pictures of this ‘urban-cleansing’ exercise that received general approval from the public. Radio and television talk-show hosts and their guests discussed the city council’s action in detail, the general trend being to applaud the police attempts to rid our streets of what many saw as an eye sore. It was rare to hear anyone talk of the violation of the rights of those persons living with disabilities, many tending to believe that their disability had deprived them of the basic rights to live in our cities.
Disability and sexual violence
It is not rare to read stories in the press, especially in Douala, of mentally-challenged men and women being sexually exploited by individuals rumoured to belong to cult-worshiping groups, or religious sects of one sort or another. Men, apparently yearning to grow rich overnight, are particularly guilty of sexually exploiting women with mental disability. That is why it is not rare to see mentally-challenged young women carrying a pregnancy in our city streets. The culprits are usually said to belong to satanic or occult groups that require their members to commit such acts, even, and especially, in broad daylight and in full view of the bemused public.
The press also takes a delight in carrying juicy stories of women, seeking instant riches, sleeping with mentally-challenged men, sometimes in the open and in broad daylight. There was a case of a woman, who is said to have alighted stark naked from her brand new car, walked up to a half naked male mental patient dosing away on a street corner and reportedly went down on her knees before him, stripped him of the scanty, torn and dirty shorts he had on, and proceeded to perform an indecent act on the poor man. The screams of the astonished man brought curious onlookers to the scene. Despite the shouts of astonishment of the public, the woman is said to have calmly walked back to her car and driven off. Where truth takes over from fiction in such matters is hard to say. But the press is full of such stories. The attention is never on the mental patient, the unwilling actor in such an indecent scene, but rather on the woman from an apparently rich background committing such an act of indecency on a ‘mad’ man.
Students living with disabilities
Some years ago, I attended a Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) meeting at my son’s school, Saint Augustine’s College, Kumbo. Shortly after calling the meeting to order, the Principal informed us that there was someone there to talk to us about children living with disabilities in the school. I remember that my mind immediately went to my wallet as I wondered how much I had to spare, for I was sure the speaker was going to stand in front of the assembly, hat in hand, to ask for money. In my mind then, disability was synonymous with begging.
What followed, however, came as something of shock to me. The woman in question walked up to the podium and for over thirty minutes talked to us about the necessity to give children living with disabilities a chance to study under normal conditions. She did not say a word about money, nor did she beg for any, as I had feared she would. Instead, she challenged us with soul-searching questions about our attitudes as parents and teachers towards children living with a handicap.
At the previous PTA meeting, we had voted a budget to help the school administration renovate the students’ toilet facilities, which we were all very proud of. She congratulated us on the new toilets but then asked us if we had a child on a wheel chair, for example, did we see him or her easily using the toilet facilities we were all so proud of? No one had given a thought to that question.
We were humbled
As we sat humbled by her question, she then asked us to examine our attitude towards children with disabilities, not only at school, but everywhere we went. She urged teachers in school to avoid using words and expressions that denigrate children living with a disability. For example, not to call a student with visual impairment “a blind student,” especially to their hearing, or to that of other students. “Call him or her by name and urge the other students to do the same,” she said. “Also avoid calling a child with a physical disability as “that lame boy or girl,” or “that cripple.” No! Call them by name and not by their physical characteristic and they will feel accepted in the school community. Most important of all,” she concluded, “encourage the other students not to taunt disabled students but to accept them as their own brothers and sisters.”
When she finished talking, we all gave her a standing ovation. I personally felt very humbled and somewhat ashamed because I had earlier dismissed her as a beggar of charity. But there she was, challenging our ill-conceived, hardened and largely negative attitudes towards people living with disabilities among us, particularly our children. The story I later wrote for the media definitely took a different slant from what I would have written had that lady confirmed the rather stereotypical picture I had in mind of persons living with a disability.
The media in Cameroon, as elsewhere, continue to either ignore persons living with disabilities, or portray them, whenever they do, from a negative angle. They generally hack on stereotypes of disability which they see either as a curse, a sin or a burden to society. However, the media can, and should, reverse this largely negative view of disability by re-focusing the public’s attention on the positive side of persons with disabilities by portraying them as human beings in need of love, caring and understanding, just like everyone else. For this to happen, media men and women themselves need to be thoroughly schooled to change their views on disability and the place of people living with disabilities in our society. The Ministry of Social Welfare and non-governmental organisations should organise frequent seminars for media men and women to understand the importance of refraining from propagating negative attitudes towards disability in our society.
Douala, December 17, 2012