Thought Leadership

Changing The Narrative For An Inclusive Society -With Innocentia Mgijima- Konopi And Edmore Masendeke

December 2022

Do not be too hasty! Conversations must lead to actions, and this is where you should start. Consider the following before concluding that you are actively contributing to the creation of an inclusive society: Do you understand what it means to be a part of something? Can you picture your surroundings in a more inclusive society? Are you working hard to build a society in which everyone is treated equally?

Inclusion, which is more of an emotion than an action, is a difficult concept to grasp unless one is willing to fully embrace it. The reality is that the working class and society, in general, cannot drive inclusion without first diversifying; the two are inextricably linked. This is precisely why global societies fail repeatedly.

Innocentia Mgijima-Konopi, a human rights lawyer and PhD student, and Edmore Masendeke, an early-stage researcher on the DARE (Disability Advocacy Research in Europe) Network and PhD student, discuss their shared perspectives on exclusion. Edmore and Innocentia offer worlds of knowledge and their collective opinions on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), with a focus on disabled people in our societies. African societies must band together to embrace DEI to chart sustainable future paths. Diverse teams, combined with strong leadership and proactive boards, will help to navigate this complex and often unjustified world.

Edmore began his career as an economist in his native Zimbabwe, but the difficulties he faced as a disabled person with cerebral palsy convinced him that he needed to play a more active role in the disability rights movement. Persons with disabilities were viewed in his country as objects of charity and welfare and not rights holders. Edmore joined others in fighting for equal treatment for persons with disabilities. Edmore now holds a Master's degree in European and International Human Rights Law and founded Endless Possibilities, an organization that provides empowering programmes to people with disabilities and advocates for their rights in Zimbabwe. Edmore is currently pursuing a PhD. His research focuses on communication support for defendants with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities during court proceedings in England and Ireland.

The severity of stigma experienced by persons with disabilities varies according to the type of disability one has and the level of awareness surrounding the characteristics of that specific disability. Based on their collective responses, South Africa has made commendable progress towards building disability inclusive society by enacting progressive disability laws and policies including the White paper on the rights of persons with disabilities, however, greater implementation of these is required if we are to transform the society. Raising awareness of disability rights on its own will not solve challenges experienced by persons with disability. It is critical that the government commit to prioritising disability rights issues and that society begins to shift its attitudes and negative perceptions about the disabled community.

Conversations like this are undoubtedly forward-looking. People are often resistant to changing their attitude and beliefs around disability because these are so deeply rooted in their cultures. However, times are changing, and it is time to let change our perspective. Eliminating stereotypes will take time but must be done. Efforts to educate the younger generations have the potential to turn the tide for the next generation. Where the difficulty lies, is in answering this question, "How do we achieve a cultural shift in the current generation?"

Innocentia and Edmore share an ardent desire to right historical wrongs by addressing the systematic discrimination experienced by persons with disabilities. Innocentia's commitment to the disabled community stems from her upbringing. Her older sister, Elma, having had a child with albinism, triggered a sense of worry for Innocentia. She became deeply concerned about the negative perceptions society had of albinism, which have remained a driving force in her life ever since. It has led Innocentia on a difficult but rewarding journey of advocating for the rights of people with albinism. Her research, with the work she does, focuses on mothers of children with albinism, specifically on how to better educate them on raising children with albinism and how to change erroneous beliefs surrounding them. If these mothers are empowered, allowing them to better care for their children, the trajectory will be different. Innocentia graduated from the National University of Ireland with a Master's degree in International and Comparative Disability Law and Policy. Her work with the Disability Rights Unit at the Centre for Human Rights entailed promoting and facilitating the formulation, implementation, and domestication of disability rights on the African continent. Innocentia is taking a break to finish her PhD, focused on older persons with disabilities as a vulnerable and often neglected group in the disability movement.

When it comes to resolving disability rights issues and determining who should be held accountable, Innocentia and Edmore's perspectives and opinions perfectly align. Neither the marginalized nor the disabled should be held responsible for discrimination against them. Our local communities collaborating with the government must take on the responsibility of changing things and creating an inclusive and equitable society.

Before the women's movement, women were silenced, denied the chance to express their opinions, and denied the ability to make decisions about their own lives. Today, however, women are some of the greatest and most admired leaders. What changed? The transformation of an entire society occurred, where the notion that women were inherently inferior and incapable was erased. Disabled people will fight a losing battle for equality if society continues to hold on to discriminatory views and attitudes about them. From early childhood, their voices carrying the messages should be in everyday activities. It is how we create a more inclusive society.

Despite the visible development, external influences are on the rise that threaten the current progression of changing the narrative, for an inclusive society. Another issue that our society must address is the entrenched segmentation and isolation of specific marginalized groups, for which we are fighting one by one. The government and society must work together to build more resilient communities and a more sustainable and inclusive country, where everyone can thrive.

The strategies that allow society to take control can only be effective if the people stand together and assert themselves. We must acknowledge that we have authority; we are the government. Society can force the government to listen to the needs of its people and their allies as support: protest action, policy briefs educating policymakers, participation in UN systems, and media coverage will force our government to be accountable. This will lead to transforming the society, for a better future. To achieve a positive result, stereotypes of disabled people, as incapable, must erase from our lexicon. That mindset that segments the disabled, based on their limitations rather than their abilities and aligns them with specific industries or sectors because that is the only place for them, is the most blatant form of discrimination. Our society's fabric must change to allow each control over their own life. The country should institute consequence management for anyone involved in inequity. Transformation will not happen overnight, but there are visible changes in the private sector, as society becomes more aware of environmental, social, and governance principles.

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