Media affects us in many ways, as a major socialising influence, a carrier of culture, a source of information, education and entertainment, an important factor in political communication and participation in a democracy and a communicator of ideological values and norms, attitudes and believes.
Media can be seen to exert an influence on identity formation and associated issues around stigma, self-esteem, social relations, economic and political positions. There are various discourses of disability which should be disseminated through the media and other channels of communication.
The question is whether media gets its story right, and if not, how did we get to that point? A proverb of the Vai people of Liberia advises how to determine the source of displeasure, “Do not look where you fell, but where you slipped.” - Edwin Sipho Rihlamvu.
The language employed in the media to describe disability is significant. Numerous expressions used in news reports encompassing people with disabilities reveal a perception of disability as an abnormality, an impairment, an illness or a tragic loss of ‘normal, healthy’ functioning.
The inkling that people with disabilities require pity or remedial treatment is often unintentionally conveyed by media, which effectively naturalises perceptions of this sector as dupes who require assistance, treatment and rehabilitation. This perception does not recognise the individuality, agency and abilities of people with disabilities.
Why did media get to this point?
'Blind actress Helen Ndamase has been living with the HI virus for 20 years,' screamed a headline (which went viral around the world) recently in a popular mainstream newspaper. This is almost all that one could salvage from the demeanor of this woman who, despite her numerous challenges, overcame the stigma visited upon her, family and child.
Helen is best known for her role as Ayanda’s blind mother, Thembela on the popular SABC1 drama series Tshisa. In 2004 she fell ill and was hospitalised and subsequently started Antiretroviral Therapy (ART). Around this time she started experiencing problems with her vision. A visit to St Johns Eye Hospital revealed that she was infected with Cytomegalovirus, which predisposes HIV positive people to blindness.
To this day I do not know whether my blindness was a result of ARV side effects or was caused by Cytomegalovirus infection,” she laments.
Needless to mention that Helen did not receive proper counseling to help her adjust to her HIV positive status or her newly acquired blindness. Both doctors and nurses in chorus were very unsupportive and ill equipped to deal with her situation. Being blind and HIV positive, Helen needed additional care and support for herself and additional help with her baby.
She experienced additional discrimination, in that she was often ignored by health professionals who would rather talk to the person accompanying her, as if her blindness and HIV status had affected the functioning of her brain or hearing.
Unfortunately media houses choose to ignore these realities and instead opted to go with the lead, 'Blind actress Helen Ndamase has been living with the HI virus for 20 years'. A ‘decent’ headline indeed!
According to media, it is immaterial and non-sensational that this daughter of the soil, after being dumped by the entertainment industry went on to study, through UNISA (under tremendous financial constraints) for a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration Degree and is currently pursuing an Honours in Industrial Psychology.
According to media, it is immaterial and non-sensational that this blind activist daughter of the soil engages in social responsibility programmes that council with HIV/AIDS inflicted and affected individuals.
According to media, it is immaterial and non-sensational that this daughter of the soil is now employed with a reputable para-statal body where she is making a concerted contribution, particularly on occupational human development and advancing the course of the recognition of disability within the workplace.
According to media, it is immaterial and non-sensational that this daughter of the soil recently wrote, “In life we need to share the burdens and allow others to hold our hands to walk the journey as it makes it easy. It helps to know that someone cares and makes our cares so much lighter ...The energy you give to the world is the same energy that you will get back so the ball is in your court. The comfort of knowing that someone is willing to help without judgement and expectation or a reward but only to see a smile on your face has to assure you that at some point you need to let it all out so that the inner good person that you are denying to come out can be displayed to the world for God’s glory to be seen and to live a legacy for those to follow.”
In short, reportage on disability in the South African mainstream media is akin to an old theatre production, which is constantly recycled to agree with the times. Often original members of the cast would have fallen out with the producer or whoever is in charge and been summarily dismissed. This axe-wielding mentality in media spaces stifles creative thinking and robs the disability fraternity of the opportunity to be best actors on stage!
'Beginning the fixing'
There is an important principle of self-representation that should be at the center of all psychology involving people with disabilities. It is this principle that also translates in a very powerful way to the slogan of the South African disability rights movement, which says, 'Nothing about us without us'.
This is about the self worth and dignity for people with disabilities. We have challenges in this country, serious ones. They are part of the South African story. We must never deny it. In a very important way, they are part of what of makes our story great. You see, what makes South Africa the amazing place it is, is the extraordinary capacity of our people to meet challenges head on and find solutions.
Government, business, civil society organisations, state-owned enterprises, faith-based organisations and the media should all be participating in the drive to increase awareness of the negative impact of coverage and attitudes on issues around disability.
South Africans have established a terrific track record of fixing what others have written off as terminally broken and of finding solutions where others have despaired. As a disabled community, together we decided that in the search for a solution to our problems, nobody should be demonised or excluded. We agreed that everybody should become part of the solution, whatever the might have done or represented in the past.
I wish everyone would drop, once and for all, the word miracle from the lexicon of descriptions for this country's achievements. It reeks of low expectations. And it misses the point. South Africans are not miracle people. We are quite ordinary human beings with an extraordinary diversity of knowledge, wisdom and talent, who makes things work.
The most fashionable argument, I propose, would be for us to be jostling for practical ideas on how to refurbish our own prejudices towards all manner of disability and cast the same spell upon our compatriots.
As the Vai Liberian proverb succinctly cautions, “Do not look where you fell, but where you slipped.”
Undoubtedly, this can only be achieved: With a Little Help from Media!
- Edwin Sipho Rihlamvu, Managing Director, Simphiwe Communications.