Joel Tsvakwi, Features Correspondent
WHILE a lot of ground has been covered in the country in conscientising members of the public on issues to do with disability and appreciating the adage “disability does not mean inability” which seeks an all inclusive approach, the same cannot be said about how society understands people with mental challenges where there are still a lot of stereotypes.
From a narrow perspective the stereotypes are justified because unlike disability whose causes are known to be natural, accident caused or medical, causes of mental illness are somehow shrouded in controversy in some if not most circumstances where African traditional beliefs dictate that mental health issues are uncommonly natural.
They are believed to be caused by witchcraft and curses placed upon the victim for some wrong doings or simply demonic spirits.
It is therefore the misunderstanding of such issues born out of some unsubstantiated beliefs by the greater public that has bred a seemingly perpetual and derogatory name calling of those suffering from mental illness.
This is unfortunately so because unlike their counterparts living with disabilities, they cannot comprehensively talk and justify why they need to be treated just like others.
They are never taken seriously by society and they rarely attract the sympathy of many who either feel no need to assist them or just scorn them while cases of them being sexually abused have been reported on. They have no voice and it has become the duty of others to seek justice for them.
They are therefore at the mercy of societal discrimination where they are often regarded as asexual, not productive while some think they have no feelings whatsoever.
The lack of appreciation has seen those suffering from mental illness being called by names of organisations that deals with them in an apparent admission of lack of appreciation of mental health issues by most people.
Those that suffer from mental illness are often referred as Zimcare or Sascam while hospitals that specifically deal with psychiatric patients like Ingutsheni have their names distorted to Enhlanyeni in an apparent perpetuation of discrimination and lack of appreciation by society of issues to do with mental health.
The mention of the word Zimcare in polite terms these days and even a long time ago is likely to give rise to resentment or dismissive remarks.
The words Zimcare and Sascam have been abused for so long, so much that any corrective effort to remind the perpetual ignorant abusers that they are abbreviations is less likely not to be believed.
While there is a plethora of lexicon items culturally and socially from our rich diversity of languages, to mean or to refer in polite terms to mental illness, Zimcare has been a misnomer lexis for too long a time, so much that to correct this can be problematic because it has been allowed to go on unchecked.
Only the affected and people responsible with care of mental patients remain indebted to the correct use of the term.
While there is a need for deliberate education and awareness programmes to ensure that people living with mental illness are treated as much as one would love his or her own body, society continues to create a continuous negative hegemony on these members of society.
According to Zimcare Trust policy document, children with mental challenges refer to children with substantial limitations characterised by significantly sub-average intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with related limitations in two or more of the following; applicable adaptive skill areas, communication, self-care, home living social skills, community use, self-direction, health and safety, functional academics, leisure and work.
Most of the mental challenges are said to manifest themselves before the age of 18.
Zimcare Trust is thus a non-profit making organisation registered under the Private Voluntary Organisation Act (PVO) (Chapter 17.05) with the mandate of caring and creating an enabling learning environment for children with intellectual challenges in Zimbabwe.
Zimcare Trust country director Mr Nicholas Aribino in an interview shared the view held by society on his organisation and its former associate institutions.
Mr Aribino believes that society’s refusal to accept mentally challenged people inherently remove the philosophy of ubuntu/unhu.
“The refusal to acknowledge a rich variety of human experience diminishes the humanity of the able bodied, we are different and this difference is the only thing that is normal under the sun,” he said, adding that this difference should be saluted by all and sundry.
He added: “The Trust is there to respect, promote, protect and fulfil the rights of persons with intellectual challenges, most of them come from families experiencing multi-dimensional deprivations like income, nutrition and poverty and as such I wish to encourage state and non-state actors to keep augmenting our efforts in the provision of care and education for these children.”
Lucidly explaining that disability is a natural meeting ground for humanity, Mr Aribino had to explain the misperception held by society with regards to his organisation which for a long time had thwarted efforts aimed at easing and helping victims of mental illness in the country.
He said: “Zimcare Trust is a PVO that is apolitical and non-profit making. It was founded in 1981 through an amalgamation of four organisations namely, Hopeland Trust, Sascam, Mamsac and Sibantubanye Day Care.”
“Zimcare Trust means Zimbabwe Cares; it does not mean a person with an intellectual challenge as is generally believed by some sections of society while Sascam is another abbreviation which means Salisbury Association for the Care of the African Mentally Handicapped while Mamsac means Midlands Association for the Mentally Sub-Normal African Children and Sibantubanye Day Care means we are all the same,” explained Mr Aribino.
Zimcare Trust has been providing care and education to more than 1 000 people with intellectual challenges since 1981, and Zimcare Trust vision, mission and core values are in accordance with the social services and poverty eradication cluster under Zim Asset.
According to Mr Aribino, the campaign for the improvement of livelihoods of people living with disabilities and intellectual challenges should be treated in the same way as gender issues.
“Disability should be put in the same basket with matters of gender. The call for gender mainstreaming has been enabled by different pieces of legislation and these pieces of legislation in some cases had insisted on certain benchmark percentages in an effort to equalise opportunities between women and men,” said Mr Aribino.
He added: “The argument being that women have, over the years been seen as second class citizens, persons with intellectual challenges have been viewed as asexual; this is an insult to their sexual and reproductive rights.”
Mr Aribino said people with intellectual challenges were being discriminated in the areas of employment and education.
“Discrimination is seen in terms of employment opportunities, at the moment there are no laws that speak to a quota system of employing people with disabilities and those with intellectual challenges.
“Such silence on this category of people has seen them suffering direct and indirect discrimination from time immemorial and does not augur well for the improvement of the livelihoods of people with disabilities,” said Mr Aribino.
Dr Timothy Stamps who is the Health Advisor to the President and Cabinet challenged the nation against all forms of discrimination of children with intellectual challenges and applauded the Trust’s efforts.
“Unfair treatment and all forms of discrimination of persons, with intellectual challenges in both the private and public spheres of life should cease.
“Zimcare Trust’s vision should be applauded as a critical partner in augmenting Government endeavours in the promotion and fulfilling of rights of persons with intellectual challenges within the 14 institutions of the trust around the country,” said Dr Stamps.