By Jennifer Moore
When it comes to people with disabilities in the news, words count. But often, in Bolivia, they do not add up to much. Journalists frequently do not pay attention to this large sector of Bolivian society. And when they do, damaging descriptors are often tossed around carelessly.
Bolivia’s Platform for the Communication Rights of People with Disabilities, made up of over twenty five public and private sector organizations, is trying to change this.
Feliza Alí Ramos is coordinator of a project for people with disabilities at International Services Ireland in La Paz, Bolivia, a member of the platform. She says, “It’s everyone’s responsibility to change misconceptions and to ensure that people with disabilities are included in society.”
However, she adds, they are not looking for special treatment. People with disabilities do not want to be seen as heroes or victims. “Communicators need to see people with disabilities as human beings with all of the qualities, abilities, defects and everything else that any person has,” comments Feliza.
The Platform for the Communication Rights of People with Disabilities has put out a manual for journalists to use. One section is devoted to appropriate language.
“People frequently use the word handicapped to mean that due to some deficiency or disability that a person is at a disadvantage in a particular situation,” says Feliza. The problem with this is that “people aren’t situations,” she explains. For instance, Feliza uses a wheelchair and if she and an able-bodied person found themselves at the bottom of a set of stairs without adaptive technology, the other person would have an advantage. Feliza’s disadvantage, however, would not be her fault, but rather that of her environment and its failure to accommodate her. Unfortunately, she adds, far too often people with disabilities are seen as a problem to be fixed.
Words like disabled are often also misused, Feliza continues. Disabled is often understood to mean incapable. She offers an alternative: “If we understand disability to mean different ways of getting along in daily life, then we can put people first and their disability second, as some that accompanies them. Then we end up with: people with disabilities.”
José Luis Aguirre, Director of the Radio and Television Training Service for Development, known as SECRAD by its initials in Spanish at the Catholic University in La Paz, believes they have a long way to go to change attitudes. However, Bolivia’s seventeenth constitution, passed in January 2009, provides them with a “favourable scenario,” he says, as the first to include communication rights.
My meeting with José Luis happens to fall on December 10, the anniversary of the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. It recognized the classic right to freedom of expression and the right to information. Article 19 reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The right to communication is broader. It includes the right to demand quality news, to ensure quality communication systems and to have one’s own means of communication, in other words to be able to fully communicate as a member of society. Bolivia’s constitution also explicitly includes the communication rights of people with disabilities and their right to have access to information in alternative languages, such as braille.
“It’s utopic to think that these articles will be fully implemented,” says José Luis, realistic about the challenges ahead of them. But, their inclusion, he considers, can be the starting point toward a shift in the way media and information is thought about.
“It provides a new sense of responsibility for journalists to guarantee the right to communication and information of other citizens,” says José Luis, going beyond freedom of expression as a right for newspaper, radio and television owners to defend. “Instead, it’s a right of all citizens.”
He dreams, like others who are part of the Platform, of a time when people with disabilities will be full participants in Bolivia’s media and have their own outlet. “Not just to have a media outlet for the sake of having one,” he says qualifying himself, “but rather to build a sense of identity based upon the concrete needs that certain sectors of society have, and recognizing their ability to be a part of public debate.”