Disability versus Culture, Religion – Understanding Key Concepts

Generally, the majority of the persons with disabilities continue to face problems in terms of access to public services as well as to various forms of opportunities, including education, information, employment, just to mention a few. Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) in Malawi are doing everything possible to advocate for increased rights of persons with disabilities so that they are able to enjoy their rights and meaningfully participate in mainstream social life, and live with dignity in a society where there are no barriers.

However, the main stumbling block remains the societal attitude originating from our deep-rooted religious and cultural norms and beliefs. Culture and religion have been used as weapons (often sub-consciously) since time immemorial to violate the rights of women, children, persons with disabilities, and many other vulnerable groups. And the sad thing is that such violations are still being perpetrated in the name of culture and religion even today. But before we discuss why and how such violations still happen today, it is important to understand what we mean by culture, religion and other associated terminologies like stereotypes.

In the first place, all of us are cultural beings. All of us have culture. Our culture shapes how we see the world and make sense of it. Culture influences all of our behaviours and interactions. Our culture also mediates how we make sense of disability and respond to people with disability.

Culture is not static. It is constantly changing and responding to shifting environments and circumstances. Within each culture there are many subcultures, which means that many beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviours are not shared amongst all the people from a culture.

Learning about a culture is also to learn about the role religion plays in a culture and about the particular features of that religion. Religions and belief systems are powerful shapers of culture and many habits, customs, folktales, stereotypes, hopes and fears of a community arise from the religious beliefs of that community. To discount the influence of religion on a culture is to forget about an essential part of that culture.

Another distinctive trait of culture and religion is stereotyping. Stereotypes are often expressed in sentences beginning with "All Malawians…" or "All women…" often followed by a broad sweeping statement. While the statement may be true for many people within a culture, there are many within each culture for which it is not true.

One of the problems with stereotypes is that they become the principle identifying characteristic for a person from a particular culture and distort further understanding of a particular culture. Stereotypes lead to prejudice and create barriers and a climate of insiders and outsiders, of "us and them". Stereotypes can also lead to barriers that prevent people from accessing services.

Now having discussed the key concepts relating to culture, religion and stereotypes, next week we shall be illustrating specific examples of how society has used these to violate many rights of persons with disabilities.