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Don’t deny me my disability, dignity and equal opportunity

When non-disabled people hear disabled people exclaiming, “Do not pity us,” what they actually hear is, “Treat us like able-bodied people.” And therein lies the problem. Why are able-bodied standards being universally upheld as a measure of human worth?

Personally, I have no interest in denying my embodied difference because, were it not for my disability, I would not be the person I am today. Not in spite of, but because of my disability, I have achieved extraordinary things.

I have just returned from Canada where I carried out my undergraduate studies, graduating with high distinction. Since the age of 19, I have participated in meetings alongside world leaders, advocating for social and economic justice. I now work for Amnesty International in the Johannesburg regional office as the youth engagement and activism co-ordinator for Africa, and I am only 24 years old.

Notwithstanding my professional success, I continue to be on the receiving end of social stigma and bigotry because of my physical disability. No matter how hard one tries, success cannot shield one from the devastation of structural inequality.

I cannot tell you how many times I have been denied access to public spaces because our built environment is seldom, if ever, designed with disability in mind. For people with disabilities, our exclusion in society is pervasive and systematic.

Contrary to dominant thinking, however, disability is not a source for all that is negative and traumatic. As far as I am concerned, disability is an offering to humanity that enables us as individuals to divest from that suffocating thing we call “normal”.

Accordingly, when I say to my non-disabled counterparts “do not pity me”, what I am saying is do not patronise me, do not belittle me in the name of some misplaced notion of compassion. What I am not saying is erase my disability and treat me as though my embodied difference means nothing in the context of our interaction.

What non-disabled people therefore need to do is learn how to demonstrate empathy toward disabled people.

That is not the same thing as not demonstrating pity. Because to not demonstrate pity is merely to occupy a vacuum, defaulting to a logic of able-bodied supremacy, which is rooted in the assumption that non-disabled ways of being are a prerequisite for human worth.

We see the logic of able-bodied supremacy manifest itself in everyday life. For example, in the context of organisational “commitments” to employment equity, it would seem that to show employees with disabilities support in the workplace means to treat them like their non-disabled counterparts, that is, to erase their embodied difference and act as though their individual disabilities do not exist. What winds up happening is that workplace performance continues to be defined in relation to able-bodied standards of capacity.

Alternative notions of capacity are therefore invalidated as legitimate forms of competence. This makes it difficult for an employee living with a physical impairment to say “no, I don’t want to type out that report using my hands because in actual fact my toes do the job better” because, to put it bluntly, toes are not validated in the workplace as perfectly acceptable for typing.

As a society made up of diverse abilities and non-abilities, we need to redefine empathy for disabled people in ways that do not confuse sincere understanding with the logic of able-bodied supremacy.

Railing against pity as a strategy to stake our claim for dignity in so-called mainstream spaces does not serve us as disability justice advocates. To make the entire argument about individual behaviour obscures the ways in which social conditioning truly operates.

By all means, feel sorry for me. Feel sorry for me in deep recognition of the fact that it must be tremendously difficult for me as a physically disabled person to negotiate my survival in a society intentionally structured around the needs of non-disabled people.

Feel sorry for me in deep recognition of the fact that it must be exhausting to fight constantly for rights that have been enshrined as inalienable in our collective consciousness, rights so taken for granted that they seem almost inconsequential in the context of postmodern society.

Feel sorry for me in deep recognition of the fact that it is able-bodied supremacy, a system we are all complicit in, and not my physical disability that stands in the way of someone like me attaining full humanity and dignity.

By all means, feel sorry for me because merely to rail against pity without promoting sound structural analysis of able-bodied supremacy is to miss the point and allow able-bodied supremacy to continue unabated.

What I am asking for is not unreasonable: dignity, human rights and equality of opportunity rest at the cornerstone of our constitutional democracy.

Edward (Eddie) Ndopu is the youth engagement and activism co-ordinator for Africa at Amnesty International, based in the Johannesburg regional office.

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