Posted by Emily Block | 0 comments

Global Studies Essay

I want to point out that these observations are only based on my limited experience and do not reflect my views (or reality) of a country as a whole.  

Fear and Integration

At my home University, I took an adaptive physical activity class and was surprised that we spent the majority of the quarter learning how to "interact with the disabled."  We read booklets, role-played situations, and discussed politically correct ways to speak to them.  I kept thinking, is talking to me really that complicated?  On one hand, I knew I was different.  I had pills instead of a cup of coffee in the morning, took naps instead of playing intramurals, and moved around on wheels instead of legs.  On the other hand, a booklet?!  After that class and five years of being disabled in the U.S., I had a good idea of what my culture taught people to think of people like me (for better or worse).  I was eager to learn how other cultures tackled this complex issue.  On this voyage around the world, I was able to observe different attitudes towards those with disabilities that different cultures fostered.  I saw a wide range of sentiments from fear to full inclusion, as well as the possible contexts for these different attitudes.

            My first experience came in Brazil.  There were several military personal outside the zoo entrance in Manaus.  Well trained, precisely tailored, and carrying guns larger than a toddler, the last emotion I expected to see in their usual steely gaze was fear.  However, that was exactly what I saw in their faces as our bus full of kids with disabilities pulled up to the zoo entrance.   Their previous stoic demeanor faltered.  They exchanged meaningful looks and fidgeted at their posts.  As our group of kids, students, and adults with all ranges of ability entered the zoo, the guards seemed to want to look in any other direction.  Once inside the zoo, I saw more evidence of this same fear in other guests.  Mothers grabbed their toddlers and sped off in opposite directions from our trajectory.  Pre-teens snuck wide-eyed looks at us from behind walls.  I looked around at our group, and saw a young woman cuddling a shabby stuffed bunny, a boy fiddling with a string tied to his wheelchair, a volunteer helping a girl eat a popsicle.  I wondered what people found so terrifying in this tranquil scene.

            To me, the answer to the source of the fear was simply being different, representing an unknown.  Most people enjoy a certain amount of familiarity and comfort.  On this trip, I know that I have experienced fear as I pushed myself past my usual comfort zone.  For the guards and guests at the zoo, seeing a large group of people with disabilities was probably just as foreign and frightening to them as the first time I tried bargaining at a market.  I learned from one of the volunteers at the home for kids with disabilities that inclusion and disability education were not common practices in Brazil.  She said that if a child had a physical disability, he or she was educated at the center instead of integrated into the public schools.  If a child had a developmental or mental disability, he or she would not receive any education.  In addition, the lack of social programs to educate and aid families of kids with disabilities often led to those families abandoning their disabled children.  In many ways, those with disabilities were separated from society as infants and remained apart from the general population their whole lives.  This separation would indeed create a recipe for stigma, othering, and fear because the general population would only know about people with disabilities as outsiders.

            An excellent foil to my experience at the zoo came a few weeks later in a South African township.  I was on another service visit, this time to volunteer for Operation Hunger.  I was apprehensive as I learned that I would be gardening as part of the project.  I doubted my ability to make a significant contribution and worried that the community I was serving may think I was too fragile to help.  After all, many attempts I made to volunteer in my community at home were blocked due to my disability interfering with the goal of the project.  My trepidation lessened as we entered the township and I saw something unique.  There were people with disabilities quite visible in the community.  I saw a mother walking with her developmentally disabled daughter to school and an elderly amputee working (not begging) at a meat shop.   A young man with profound brain damage was among the community members who greeted our group when we toured the soup kitchen.   I had rarely seen such inclusion in any society.  When it came time for the gardening to begin, I was only asked once if I needed any help before being left to my work.  Part way through, one of our guides exclaimed over my raking technique and asked me to show him how to do it.  In that experience I was accepted into a community, even as a stranger, in a way I never had before.  The people from the township who were overseeing the gardening project acknowledged my potential need for assistance, but, more importantly, focused on my ability to contribute to the project.  I believe the full integration I saw and experienced in the township community comes from the idea of Ubuntu, "I am what I am because of who we all are."   In this philosophy, every person has his or her responsibilities and place in society.  If one person were excluded, the whole society would suffer because it would not be able to realize its full potential. 

            These experiences are just two examples of attitudes towards people with disabilities out of a much larger collection I have experienced.  When looking for the reason behind the sentiment, I found a number of personal, religious, cultural, philosophical, and educational causes.  Many times, my experience was a result of a complex mix of those.  I look forward to taking the knowledge and confidence I gained from researching for this paper back home to my everyday life. 





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