In 2016, the Barbadian R&B legend Rihanna released Anti, her eighth studio album. The cover had no Roman-alphabet text, only information in Braille, in perfect groups of raised, feel-able dots.
In a turn-around of the norm, only blind people could read the cover: your average sighted person would have to find a blind person (or at least, go on Google) to work out what it said.
I loved that; it was something unusually subversive for the commercial music industry. It forced me, and I’m sure others, to think about what it must be like to be blind or visually impaired: to have to repeatedly ask others to read for you every public notice, every street sign, most newspapers…
It got me thinking, also: maybe, when it comes to people with disabilities, we need shock treatment like that to rid ourselves of some of our prejudices, inequalities and inactions.
I feel people with disabilities are often invisible to us. One higher education institution recently held a graduation for short courses that it had held, mainly, but not exclusively aimed at empowering people with disabilities.
It emerged on social media that an SRC member of the same university was not even aware of the ceremony or the courses existing. Not that I want her to feel bad: this kind of lack of awareness is not unusual.
How many Namibians can name all our athletes who won medals at the Paralympic Games? I confess I could only remember one name, Johanna Benson, but the fact is that our paralympians, as they are called, have consistently performed better on the international stage than our non-disabled athletes.
I think most people can see that affirmative action schemes and wealth taxes are not, in principle, vicious campaigns against whites and the rich respectively, and are rather compensations for the fact that some in our society start off with more than others.
But can the same people, if they don’t need it, be educated not to take a ‘disabled parking spot’? It’s just logical to compensate for the fact that that person in a wheelchair can’t sprint through the parking lot like I can.
We need the same kind of affirmative action and economic empowerment initiatives for people with disabilities that we have for the many other groups who have been marginalized by our recovering-from-apartheid society.
It would be nice if we ‘dragged’ those being mean to disabled people on social media the same way we do Twitter and Facebook sexists and racists. We should.
Maybe a national focus on people with disabilities could change the tone of much of our political-economic discourse. Help move us away from all the ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps and don’t complain’ talk. Push us towards more of a ‘we’re a caring society, we help those who might otherwise be left behind’ vibe.
Admittedly, I write this as a non-disabled person myself.
(Had I lived before the first eye-glasses were made in about the year 1300 I'd have had much difficulty maneuvering around the world, but that’s just an ‘aside’ as the theatre actors would say).
I apologize if I have offended any folks with disabilities in this article.
To be clear, anyone with a disability should be catered for because he or she is a person, first and foremost, not because non-disabled society might benefit, although it surely would.
And we do need drastic action to ensure that people with disabilities are no longer invisible to those of us whose four limbs and five senses work in a way associated, fairly or unfairly, with the majority.
I don’t expect this, but say, just say, that the Namibian government directed that 50 percent signs in malls be in Braille only, or if, one evening a week you only got sign language on NBC news? Maybe that would be a way in to some people’s heads. It could force a lot of non-disabled people to think again.
Maybe that would give us all that same ‘oh, yeah. Damn.’ moment I had standing in Musica looking at CDs a couple of years ago.
Hugh Ellis is a lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). If you disagree with him, come and steal his glasses, or better yet, contact him on Twitter @ellis_hugh. The views expressed here are personal.