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WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT AUTISM?

Mar 2, 2017, 12:32 PM

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder that is often diagnosed in children before the age of three. The disability is often characterized by an inability to verbally express oneself fluently, the inability to engage in social interactions with others, and ones obsession with repetitive behavioral patterns.

For some children who are diagnosed with autism, their deficit is mild enough that they can perform daily functions such as engaging in a conversation with minimal disruptions. In others, basic life skills such as dressing oneself, managing money, or taking part in parallel activities in groups or individually are beyond reach. Because of the range with which autism can be described, the term “spectrum” is often included when naming the disability. Hence, the term autism spectrum disorder is the prevalent term used to refer to the disorder.

For disability activists, a “People First” approach is preferred when dealing with individuals with disabilities. For example, in the case of an individual who is diagnosed with autism, it is highly desirable to refer to the person as one who is diagnosed with autism or autism spectrum disorder. It is undesirable to refer to the person as autistic. The People First approach takes the stigma of disabilities away from the individual, while promoting an abilities first attitude within the disability culture.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND AUTISM AND OTHER DISABILITIES?

Like many other cultures, The Gambia has a deep history of excluding individuals with disabilities from daily life. How many times has one walked into a bank and see a bank teller in a wheelchair, helping customers complete account transactions? When was the last time that a child with a disability attended school with his or her non-disabled peers in The Gambia? How many teachers are trained on how to educate children with emotional, intellectual, or physical disabilities? As a reader, if you answered positively to any of the above questions, you are truly an exception in The Gambian society.

I am a Gambian native. Like many of you, I grew up in The Gambia and never once interacted with an individual with a disability. In fact, the only moments when I came across a person with a handicap were at the market when I would observe a person who could not walk, begged for change. They would either be seated on the ground or have their hands placed on the shoulders of a child who walked them all over the car-park or the market looking for change. Every so often, someone would throw change at them out of pity. Others may buy a loaf of bread or some other handout and gave it to them as charity before moving on. The bottom line is that an individual with disabilities in The Gambia does not stand a chance at succeeding.

However, that should not be the case. Every child can learn under appropriate set of circumstances. Like the general population, children with disabilities can learn to read, write, and perform mathematical operations alongside their non-disabled peers. Therefore, under “The New Gambia,” as we look to address disparities across all sectors of public life, the needs of individuals with disabilities must be included as part of our broader approach to human rights. Every citizen should be afforded a right to life, liberty, and prosperity without regard to ethnic identity, gender, or disability.

Article 1 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared that, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” There are no exclusionary measures in the above doctrine. Therefore, the Constitution of The Gambia should not exclude any citizen in their engagements with the general public. As efforts are underway to right the wrongs embedded in the nation’s Constitution, the voices of conscience must stand up for all Gambians regardless of social, economic, and disability status.

I am encouraged to learn about efforts to upgrade institutions such as the prison system in pursuit of humane treatments towards our brothers and sisters under state custody. I am also encouraged to learn about the work that parliament is undergoing to lift the age limit that prohibited Gambians from serving in government. While the country continues to make progress in various facets of national development and reconciliation, I pray that the rights and dignity of individuals with disabilities will not be ignored. Leaving so many of our fellow countrymen and women in positions of pity because of their disability is contrary to the ideals of democracy. The Gambia should be an inclusive nation, one that appreciates the invaluable contributions of every citizen. We can begin that work by educating children with disabilities to become productive members of the Gambian society the same way as we educate children without disabilities.

Author: Sankung Papa Susso, Professor of Education, Touro College and University System

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