(This article, compiled by Elizabeth Ombati, OPD EO Kenya and Rejaul Karim Siddique, OPD EO Bangladesh, was first published on the International Disability Alliance (IDA) website.)

It is highly likely that we have encountered, in communications where persons with disabilities are concerned, or in general discourse on disability, common threads that portray the experience of disability in ways that are far from what the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is based on. This means that either it is language or communication that still portrays people with disabilities as needing care, as being a burden (charity models), or as needing to first have their impairments fixed/cured before they can participate in society (medical models).

Hardly ever do we see the focus being on barriers and how they restrict participation, what it would take to remove these barriers, and offer appropriate support to have persons with disabilities fully and meaningfully involved in our communities.

“John is an excellent employee despite his disability.”

“Joan’s disability has not stopped her from excelling as a good student.”

“In spite of his condition, he is always wearing a smile.”

What picture is being painted by these comments? It could be deduced that the thinking is driven by societal stereotypes against persons with disabilities, which in most cases see them as ‘incapable/underachievers’, or as ‘extraordinary/overachievers’ (there is a long list of stereotypes) but never just normal like everyone else. It appears that the picture of what people with disabilities should or should not be – putting too much pressure on ‘excellence despite,’ or ‘even if I don’t amount to much, that is the way it should be anyway’.

The Article 8 of the CRPD is dedicated to awareness raising. Calling on States parties to adopt measures to raise awareness about persons with disabilities throughout society; to foster respect for the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities; to combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices, including those based on sex and age, in all areas of life; and to promote awareness of the capabilities and contributions of persons with disabilities.

A report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on awareness-raising under Article 8 of the CRPD states thatpersons with disabilities may adopt negative attitudes themselves, limiting their personal expectations and ambitions and resulting in lower self-esteem and disempowerment. It goes on to add that persons with disabilities may be more exposed to abuse and exploitation due to their lack of awareness and information about their rights, what such rights entail and how to exercise and invoke them should they be threatened or infringed.

It is therefore imperative that a whole society approach is adopted within all awareness raising initiatives. As the OHCHR report notes, examples include training and other face-to-face strategies that promote changes in attitudes that should be directed at persons both with and without disabilities; curricula at primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education should include disability-inclusive human rights; at family level as families play a crucial role in empowering persons with disabilities, at an early age and throughout life. Well-informed families can ensure that the rights of persons with disabilities are also respected in the family context.

At the core, understanding that the presence, portrayal and participation of persons with disabilities in the broadcast media, both on and off air, can rapidly improve efforts in the media companies and their products to change attitudes. There is need therefore for states and non-state actors to work together with the public and private media to increase the participation of persons with disabilities, in consultation with them.

It is also very important that persons with disabilities access avenues to know, seek and receive information about all human rights and fundamental freedoms as reflected in Article 21 of the CRPD regarding access to information. Such information must be in accessible formats including braille, sign language, easy to read and plain language versions, large prints, closed captioning, written or audio description among other formats.

In our diverse spaces therefore, we must endeavor to rely on communication that is in line with the CRPD. Summarizing from the Inclusive Futures CRPD communications guide – a working document, some key messages include:

  • On language, use terms that are accepted by the movement of people with disabilities. Do not use euphemistic or patronizing language, either in English, locally spoken or national languages. For example, to avoid terms like differently-abled, special abled, etc.
  • Using person first language: CRPD-compliant communication uses person first language.
  • Use the social model of disability, not the medical or charity model, which includes avoiding glorifying overcoming of disability. For example, avoid terms like ‘in spite of’ and ‘despite’. The focus should be on creating inclusive environments and systems.
  • Acceptance of people with disabilities as part of human diversity to avoid depicting having a disability as something heroic or pitiable. While successes should be celebrated, it should not be based on the ‘overcoming’ of disabilities, but the barriers.
  • Looking at systemic barriers while portraying individual stories. This could mean shifting the focus from only looking at how the individual addressed barriers to also looking at what those barriers are and how systemic interventions are needed to remove them for all people with disabilities.
  • The OHCHR report notes that abusive language against persons with disabilities is largely unrecognized as hate speech, mainly because of the commonly considered unintended nature of discrimination based on disability. Nevertheless, hate speech against persons with disabilities contributes to maintaining an ableist climate that has consequences beyond the individual targeted and an impact on persons with disabilities as a group. Hate speech may also constitute or lead to hate crime and bullying, which is a growing trend in online hate speech. Linking this to the case study shared in this article from Bangladesh, another recommendation therefore is the need to have stringent, punitive measures to curb the publication and use of words/ messages that give a negative sense of disabilities or spread misconceptions/myths/misperceptions about disabilities. There is also the need to ensure proper implementation of laws with a strong monitoring mechanism.

Case Study: Negative portrayal of persons with disabilities in media causes harm in their inclusion and participation

Recently in Bangladesh a prominent television network “Channel I” aired a telefilm named “Ghotona Sottya” which spread a key message that sins of parents result in their children having impairments! In an earlier incident, the same network aired a very popular talk show named “To the Point” where a discussion gave a disability linked analogy to describe the poor performance of the Bangladesh football team. Both of these shows that degrade and devalue the lives of persons with disabilities are available on their social media channels and are reaching millions of people.

Such disregard to the lives of persons with disabilities by the network and individuals involved did not just reinforce stereotypes but also potentially put persons with disabilities at a higher risk of violence, abandonment, confinement, discrimination and social injustice. People with disabilities, their family members and OPDs are protesting against the negative messaging about disabilities. As a result of this advocacy, the telefilm has been removed from the YouTube channel and the concerned artists have apologized to persons with disabilities and their families.

The OPD Engagement Officer (OPD EO) Bangladesh has been engaged in mobilizing OPDs by disseminating legal information based on the CRPD and other available domestic legislation. The OPD EO is coordinating with OPDs so that a strong advocacy campaign can be undertaken with relevant ministries and departments. He was invited to the Board meeting of the Protection of Persons with Neuro-developmental Disabilities Trust (a government organization) to provide feedback on potential actions that may be taken by the Trust. 

The Bangladeshi disability movement is demanding action be taken against those involved as per the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2013. The OPD EO is leading the legal action based on the violation of the law, with six prominent OPD leaders including their names as witnesses in the complaints which have been filed in the Court of Metropolitan Magistrate, Dhaka on 11 August 2021. Learned Court ordered the Police Bureau of Investigation to investigate and submit report on 22 September 2021.