Changing the conversation around disability

Lidia Pretorius

Lidia Pretorius is Disability Inclusion Advisor on the Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS) project. She's been working with journalists to change the conversation around girls with disabilities.

Around the world, there are lots of different perceptions and stigmas around disability. These views can massively affect people with disabilities. The stigma attached to disability is one of the most significant barriers that stop children from accessing education.

It also can prevent them from participating fully in school life once they’re enrolled. So, we’ve been working to change some of those perceptions in South Sudan. By working with radio presenters and journalists, we want to make positive changes to the representation of children with disabilities in the media. 

The media has a huge role to play in changing public perceptions, attitudes and behaviour towards marginalised groups. And it’s no different when it comes to disability. The media can help change behaviours within communities. They can have a positive impact to improve social inclusion which can help enrol more children with disabilities local schools.

What is GESS?

Throughout the pandemic, technology as played a vital role in keeping us connected. Leonard Cheshire is a consortium partner in the GESS. GESS is an inclusive programme that aims to transform the lives of a generation of girls in South Sudan. It works to provide access to quality and inclusive education. 

Recently, we have been using technology to roll out a disability confidence building programme. Behaviour change communication is a crucial element. We’ve been using various methods – like webinars to help us show the importance of education for girls and boys with disabilities.

Working with radio presenters and journalists

Our recent three-part online webinar series was for radio presenters and journalists. They aimed to promote the importance of rights for girls with disabilities. We used WhatsApp groups and Teams to spark engaging discussions and share thoughts. On Whatsapp alone, we had more than 20 radio announcers engaged. This led to vibrant and inquisitive conversations discussing challenges and potential solutions. 

Some presenters live in remote areas and broadcast in the local language. So, WhatsApp was a huge help here. The broadcasters were able to share their thoughts through voice notes. This led to some lively debates! Some participants even went on to broadcast messages and share questions on their local radio stations.

An essential component of the series was the participation from the South Sudan Union of Persons with Disabilities. They helped facilitate the engagement with the radio presenters. We hope their participation will spark collaboration between radio stations and people with disabilities across South Sudan.

Our webinars topics

The webinars focused on key topics to empower the participants to recognise the critical role they play in promoting inclusion. These included, for example, reducing stigma around disability in their communities. In many cultures, there are beliefs that children with disabilities are people to be pitied or feared. As a result, they are bullied or excluded from education.

So journalists have an important role in challenging these belief systems. They can adapt the language they use in their stories, as well as the stories they choose to cover in the first place.

The impact of stories

We worked with the journalists to show how their own personal belief systems can come through in their stories. And how important it is to use positive language when talking about disability. The stories they portray must shift the narrative on disability from inability to ability. And equally importantly, from problem identification to local, community-based solution-seeking. 

Girls with disabilities also face double discrimination due to their gender. They can be exploited, be at risk of harm and be undervalued economically. It was essential to communicate the concept of safeguarding when writing stories. The webinars also included activities and exercises. The aim was to get the participants thinking about equality and inclusion. As well as appreciate the power they have as journalists to affect behaviour. They have the ability to include more perspectives of girls with disabilities in their reporting. 

Going forward

To move the conversation forward, we encouraged participants to develop a five-point plan. These outline will show how they will begin promoting girls with disabilities as equal citizens. They could use methods like including rights-based language in their stories, as well as taking active steps to build their knowledge base around disability. 

For journalists to be true advocates, they must go out of their way to work with people with disabilities. They must challenge their perceptions of disability. And begin working with Organisations of Persons with Disabilities (OPDs). These positive relationships can help them understand the challenges and barriers people with disabilities face. And what the possible solutions are to remove such barriers. From there, they can begin bringing more stories from girls with disabilities to light.

It was so encouraging to see and hear the participants engaging passionately in the sessions. When journalists understand the importance of inclusion and accessibility, we can begin to see meaningful social and cultural change. Moving forward, it would be great to see more representation of disability in the media. Not just in the stories – but amongst the journalists too!