Disability: You are not immune

Dr Christine Peta
The aim of this article is to discuss some of the different types of disabilities, so as to enhance our knowledge about what each type of disability means.
The most common types of disability are: blindness, deafness, mental disability, intellectual disability, acquired brain injury, autism spectrum disorder and physical disability. The focus of this article is on blindness, deafness, mental disability and physical disability.

Blindness
Blindness is not the same for everybody: in simple terms, some people are partially blind and some people are totally blind. To be totally blind means that one does not see anything. Research has indicated that only about 5 percent to 15 percent of persons with visual impairment have total blindness and about 85 percent have some limited vision. Some people can see light only, others can see objects that are at a distance, but they cannot see from the sides of their eyes (peripheral vision), or some people can see from the sides of their eyes, but they cannot see objects that are at a distance.

Wearing spectacles has become so common that people who use them are rarely regarded as people with visual impairment
The causes of blindness are many and they include, stroke, diabetes, eye emergencies such as objects that enter the eye, head injuries, measles, cataracts and glaucoma. Do not self-diagnose visual impairment: consult an ophthalmologist (medical doctor who specialises in eye problems).

When talking to a blind person, you should always start by introducing yourself; tell them who you are, and who you are with. The fact that a person is blind does not mean that they automatically need your assistance. The courteous thing to do is to first ask if the person needs assistance. If you force help on a person because they are blind, you show disrespect of their ability to make their own decisions and your help may become unhelpful.

If you are guiding a blind person, let the person take your arm instead of you taking their arm. As you walk with a person who is blind, describe any changes in the terrain such as stones, wells, staircases, etc. If a blind person is using a guide dog, you should bear in mind that the dog is at work, hence there is no need for you to pat the dog, feed it or distract it in any way.

Deafness
The term deafness, hearing impairment or hearing loss are commonly used interchangeably to refer to the inability of a person to hear partially or totally. Deafness means that a person does not hear anything at all or a person hears things partially. People who are severely deaf depend on reading the lips of others when they are communicating or they depend on sign language.

Reading the lips of others is hard for people with congenital (from birth) deafness, but people who acquire deafness later on in life may find it easy to lip read. Apart from sign language, affected persons may use hearing aids or writing notes among other things.
Deafness is caused by a variety of factors among them being diabetes, Aids, meningitis, mumps, chicken pox, arthritis, some cancers, premature birth, lack of oxygen at birth or other birth traumas, jaundice, disorders of the brain or nervous system.

Hearing losses can be prevented through immunisation against infectious diseases, treating ear infections on time, protecting ears against excessive noise with ear plugs, reducing time that one spends listening to personal audio devices and getting regular hearing checks. So what do you do when you are talking to a person who is deaf? You should look at the person and speak directly to them, you should not ignore them by focusing on people who may be accompanying them such as sign language interpreters.

You should aim to speak with a normal voice tone, unless the person who is deaf asks you to do otherwise.
If you do not understand what the person is saying, you can give them a pen and paper to write or you can ask them to repeat what they are saying or to rephrase it.

If you are working with a person who has partial hearing impairment, ensure that their work station is not in a noisy place.

Mental disability
Mental disability usually affects the brain or the mind, and most families find it difficult to accept that one of their loved ones has a mental disability. Mental disability affects the way a person thinks, feels or acts and may include personality disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorder.

Research indicates that mental disability usually arises from genes or environmental factors, or an intersection of both.
Mental disabilities may also arise among people when they have serious financial problems, or among people who live in areas that are characterised with a lot of violence and crime among other things.

The outward symptoms of mental disability often manifest in a person’s behaviour. The person may either be withdrawn or extremely quiet, the person may have great anxiety, burst into tears or have outbursts of anger. Persons with mental disability do not show symptoms all the time, but when episodes of mental relapse happen, disruptions may occur in school work or employment.

If people get help at an early stage, such people may either get over mental disability or they may learn constructive ways of living with the disability and be able to acquire education, and sustain employment, whilst they adhere to therapy and consistently take their medication.

Positive coping strategies include talking about problems and exercising, destructive strategies include drinking alcohol and taking drugs. A person with a mental disability may also struggle to concentrate, and such inability can be caused by the type of medication that the person takes.

The side effects of such medication may also include headaches, confusion and weight gain, which arises from the fact that some persons who have mental disability tend to eat a lot. That is so because the person may feel worthless and powerless, so eating may be a way of feeling in control.

Physical disability
Physical disability is an impairment which limits the function of part of a body’s physical function, resulting in a person being limited in carrying out the functions that they would otherwise have been able to do had they not been disabled.
Physical disability may present challenges with sitting or standing, walking or using one’s hands.
The causes of physical disability are many, some persons are born with physical disability through conditions that are present at birth such as spina bifida. Spina bifida is a birth defect which occurs when the bones of the spine do not form properly around part of a baby’s spinal cord.

Some people acquire physical disability later on in life through for example, accidents, diseases and violence.  The most common types of physical disability are spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, acquired brain injury and sensory impairments. People with physical disability may use assistive devices such as wheelchairs, crutches, and scooters to enhance their mobility, hearing aids can improve hearing ability.

Way forward
No one is immune from disability and as Garland-Thompson says: “Most of us will move in and out of disability in our lifetimes, whether we do so through illness, an injury or merely the process of aging.” Yet even talking about disability may not be easy for some people. When disability occurs next door, people often think “it’s for them, not for us” but the earlier we start learning about disability the better; it can happen to anyone at any time.


Dr Christine Peta is a public healthcare practitioner who, among other qualifications, holds a PhD in Disability Studies. Be part of the international debate on how best to nurture a society which is more accessible, supportive and inclusive of disabled people. Partner with Disability Centre for Africa (DCFA) on [email protected]

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