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Disability Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives|
Susan Burch and
Part One: Identities and Locations
I grew up in conservative Muslim Northern Nigeria during the 1970s and 1980s when there were very few civil rights or disability rights organizations. In the northern part of the country during my childhood, there were regular epidemics: measles, meningitis, and even polio. Education rates in the North trailed those in the South, and girls generally received less education than boys. In some ways, Northern Nigeria was a very feudal society with strict lines of social order. The emirs of Northern towns and the Sokoto Caliphate (the capital of Northern Nigeria) strictly followed a theocratic and legal system of government, which made it difficult to challenge social norms. This meant that any rights-based groups, such as those advocating women’s rights, disability rights, or even religious rights (for the Christian minority Northerners), were all frowned upon because they suggested that the current social order was wrong. This certainly contributed to the limited number of disability rights organizations in my early years in Northern Nigeria.
At the same time, there were many disabled people around due to the periodic outbreaks of diseases. It was common to encounter blind and deaf individuals, as well as those with mobility impairments, in public. Cultural practices and beliefs strongly shaped what it meant to be disabled. For example, charity is one of the five pillars of Islam, and so Muslim societies like Nigeria emphasize this as a key practice between people. Consequently, many disabled people begged for a living and often made quite a good living of it. This dynamic reveals what many scholars have argued, that disability is socially constructed and imbued with meaning through human interaction. In my home country, I observed a deeply reciprocal economic and cultural relationship between disabled and nondisabled people. Having disabled individuals around enabled those who were not disabled to fulfill their obligations to their religion, which required that they share their wealth. It was common lore—although I do not know for certain—that recipients generally were able to feed themselves and their families, to attend school, and otherwise have some kind of independence outside of this cultural/economic exchange. I could imagine scenarios where this might be true, as well as situations where this view probably served to appease the donors rather than reflect reality. Outside researchers would justifiably assert that disabled people in Nigeria were seen as objects of pity, not as people who were capable of working. The underlying theme of charity is that its recipients always have to be taken care of.
Looking back on this, I understand these dynamics more clearly, but also am aware that common people may not have experienced the charity/pity model of disability in such strictly academic terms. I still remember my mom leaving the house every morning with her coins at the ready to hand out to all the beggars she would meet on the way. For her and for my family, this was just a common aspect of our daily lives. I don’t recall my parents ever comparing me to the disabled people they met on the streets. It’s possible that they made some kind of connection between my deafness and other people’s disabilities, but they also clearly felt that education would be the way out of that for me and that I would always be a productive citizen if given a chance.
My own experience as a deaf person both reflected and bucked these models. When I was five, I was able to begin attending a residential school in Zaria (one of the seven original Hausa states), which had been established by African-American missionaries in the 1960s. As did many of my deaf peers in the United States, I gained a new cultural identity in school, a deaf cultural membership. My friends and I acquired proficiency in American Sign Language, and through this language we learned our deaf Nigerian history and folklore. Tight kinship networks grew out of the school and so I did not experience the types of isolation and stigma that people with disabilities commonly describe in their memoirs and scholarly works.
At the same time, my life experience teaches me that Western notions of deaf cultural identity don’t apply universally. I think that being deaf in Africa is primarily about survival. There is an immediate concern with economic issues and making it in a climate and culture that is not always friendly toward disability. In the United States, most deaf people have moved beyond this basic challenge; in short, most deaf Americans can afford to focus on “higher order” issues, almost like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: You first focus on meeting your basic needs, then you reach for more self-affirming ones. Deaf people in Africa are at the bottom of this pyramid of needs, while North American deaf people generally seem to be closer to the top of the pyramid. There are deaf people who still beg for a living in Nigeria. Many more are making a subsistence living. However, there are plenty of exceptions, primarily those educated to the high school level and beyond, and thankfully this number is increasing. These deaf people work in the professional sector, drive their own cars, even own houses. Still, compared to the vast majority, I’d say from my own observations and from working with people in Nigeria that the proportions are still fewer than you find in the U.S.