The Danger of a Single Narrative In Disability Empowerment

The disability community everywhere has got its own celebrated heroes and heroines—people who stood up for what they believed in and managed to change the world. For blind people, examples that come to mind include history-makers such as Louis Braille (1829-1852) and Helen Keller (1880-1968). The list also includes artists such as Paul Matavire (1960-2005) and Chamunorwa Nebeta, whose artistic prowess captured the public imagination.

Besides artists, stories of professionals who managed to defy the odds and succeeded have made headlines: people like the late Piason Nherere, Tsarai Mungoni, Mrs. Rosewitter Mudarikwa, and Mr. Abraham Mateta.

The reason why their achievements are celebrated has to do with how the society to some extent acknowledges its own role in trying to deny them opportunities to succeed. However, instead of such an admission, it brings to the fore a story of someone struggling and beating the odds.

Isn’t it sweet to read about how an underdog turns the table to claim the mantle of glory? Such stories of David beating Goliath find a hallowed spot in our hearts because they have an echo of how good prevails over evil in the end.

But therein lies the problem

The problem has to do not with the story, but how its ultimate lesson is lost on hearers. The heroes whose lives we celebrate may not always have achieved that status in their lifetimes. IN fact, some of them may have been unpopular in the decisions they made with their contemporaries.

Additionally, for every success story we hear or read, there are nine other stories of failure we will never live to learn of. Yet the failures may not have been a result of poor decisions on the part of players, but due to circumstances beyond their control.

Get me right: I am not justifying failure in any way. Instead, I think it always makes sense to be charitable whenever we hear of a story: be it of success or failure.

Hence, the problem of celebrated heroes who are from marginalised groups has to do with using their success stories as a template for the rest of that community. Thus, judging the quality of life by what we know of from those who achieved may not be fair.

Disability does not mean Inability

While the disability policy was launched last week and was held as a historic event, it has to be born in mind that the denial of opportunities by the society may not be yet over. The mantra disability does not mean inability is not new: rather it is one of the oft-cited phrase when issues of discrimination come up.

Because person A, with a disability, managed to be a successful businessperson, it proves that disability did not become an excuse for his or her failure. Instead, he or she succeeded in setting up a business venture in a mainstream setting. Hence disability is not inability.

The problem is when we see person B, also with the same disability as Person A failing to be successful in doing the same. The easier explanation to provide than any other in such a situation is laziness. Why is Person B failing to do the same thing as Person A who also has the same disability? Does Person B not know that disability does not equal inability?

The problem with this inference is that, while disability is being used as a constant, yet other variables are not measured. How do we conclude that disability had been a factor, or not a factor, in the fortunes of these two people? Aren’t we being unfair to Person B who might

  • Not have been fortunate to get the same education as Person A?
  • Not have the same opportunities in accessing capital as Person A?

Of course, Person B might be lazy–we don’t have to discount that. But we have to be careful with how we reach certain conclusions. But why are we not ready to do the same thing to non-disabled people?

Disability does not mean inability /because the antonym of inability is ability whereas the antonym of disability is able-bodied./

How the single narrative oppresses

The beauty of a single narrative is that it inspires. It offers hope to the millions of other marginalised people that indeed it is possible to beat the odds, provided that one never gives up in the face of opposition.

The danger with a single narrative is that it can be used by oppressors to deny opportunities to others, especially those who look up to them. The story would be used as a justification to strip others of their rights on the ground that if one other person rose to prominence under these circumstances, why not you?

If we have a problem with a visually impaired person because he or she cannot walk on his or her own, we may not have considered:

  • The onset of the visual impairment. Someone who lost sight in his twenties may not be as good as someone who grew up without sight.

  • The difference in someone’s mobility skills. Even for someone who grew without sight, mobility may not be his or her strength. They may have strength in some other skill than mobility.

  • The training the two persons received in respect of the judged skill, in this case, mobility.

  • The background of the person.

    Plus many other factors. This was just an example of how two people may be judged using the same yardstick.

Conclusion

The worst form of oppression is when the oppressor seems to understand the concerns of the oppressed. As the saying “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”,1 the injustice is evident when a single narrative is applied to a disability to make policies, to generalise incidents to the whole group without regard to individual circumstances. In disability activism, this is one of the dangers people run into when trying to lobby for a favourable position for their constituencies.


  1. First attributed to Alexander Pope (1688-1744) ↩︎

Ishe Chinyoka
Ishe Chinyoka
Access Technology Instructor

My research interests include operating systems, access technology, programming, and science fiction.