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OPINION | Michelle Botha: Charitable appeals feed into negative ideas about blindness

3 Sep 2021

By Michelle Botha

Charitable appeals support the provision of visual impairment services, but are potentially damaging to the social status of persons with visual impairment, writes Michelle Botha.

Most organisations that provide support services to visually impaired persons in South Africa operate as non-profits. While these organisations receive some government funding, they often rely heavily on donations from the corporate sector and the public to stay afloat. Tapping into public generosity requires a clear message and one that evokes strong feelings.

Charitable appeals are often framed by the message that donations will “make a difference in the lives of visually impaired people” and “help to uplift persons with visual impairments”. These messages are familiar, and it is perhaps easy to overlook their implications for how persons with visual impairments are viewed in society. While donations from the public are essential to ensure that organisations remain financially viable, these kinds of appeals can feed into a negative view of persons with disabilities.

On Casual Day (3 September), we need to remind ourselves that despite legislation and policies on disability inclusion in the spheres of health, education and employment, the vast majority of disabled South Africans remain socio-economically excluded and marginalised. Persons with disabilities face complex challenges in our society, including lack of access to quality education, employment opportunities, accessible and affordable transport, social spaces and information. Our inaccessible society ensures that persons with disabilities, who comprise at least 7.5% of the population, remain largely invisible. When persons with disabilities do come into view, it is often as the beneficiaries of public goodwill.

Passive welfare recipients

Given the dire situation of both education and employment, many persons with disabilities turn to the non-profit sector for support. These organisations provide various services, including skills training, social work and job placement, at no cost. They are often consulted as disability experts, and many have built public trust over several decades.

Rehabilitation and development services for visually impaired persons can be found in several such well-established organisations. These services are important as individuals adjust to life with visual impairment. Services include white cane mobility training, Braille literacy training and training in computer literacy using various assistive software, as well as support to enter or re-enter the workforce.

As part of my recent doctoral study, I reviewed the public relations material of these organisations to explore how persons with visual impairments are represented. I found that visually impaired service users are persistently referred to in the third person and positioned as passive recipients of both the work and services of organisations and the goodwill and gifts of the public.

Service users are often not directly addressed. They appear in the copy only in relation to the interventions/services they have received, or the funding which facilitates these interventions/services. Where direct appeals are made, these are for donations, partnerships and volunteers in support of the work of organisations. The reader is invited to participate as a supporter of services, not to make use of the advertised services. This implies that the targeted reader is a concerned and generous public rather than a service user exploring potential service options.

This material holds potential donors at the centre as benevolent actors in relation to visually impaired people who are necessarily positioned as unfortunate. Visually impaired persons are sometimes overtly referred to as “not fortunate” or “less fortunate”, while in other instances, misfortune is implied by appeals to “make a difference” or “change a life”. Misfortune is most often directly and exclusively linked to the fact of impairment, while the impact of social discrimination and exclusion is seldom mentioned.

Negative ideas about disability

By focusing on impairment, charitable appeals do not require the public to engage with how our society sets up and maintains barriers that negatively impact the lives of persons with disabilities. This enables society to hold persons with disabilities, in this case those with visual impairments, at arm’s length. These representations matter as they feed into socially held ideas about the experience of visual impairment and form expectations about what persons with visual impairments can do and what they can be. Rather than the image of active stakeholders, these representations foreground an image of passivity.

One of the participants in my study recognised that charitable appeals could shape public perception in negative ways. She said:

“I was just reading on [organisation] Facebook page today, ‘It’s Christmas time! Make Christmas better for those less fortunate, those blind people’. And it irks me because what are you doing? Yes, we know that blind people have less chance of employment, so we are poorer but don’t do that…everybody that’s on [organisation] Facebook page, all their donors are reading that, ‘the blind/destitute at [organisation]’…How many of us are not fitting the mould that they, as the organisation, are creating for the public perception to perceive of us?”

These representations might also play a role in shaping the self-perception of persons with visual impairments, and especially people who are experiencing the onset of sight loss. We must consider what encountering descriptions of visual impairment as unfortunate might be like for people seeking assistance to move forward into life with visual impairment. What might framing services as a charitable exchange between organisations and their donors do in shaping how visually impaired persons understand their status and place in the world?

Charitable appeals are necessary to support important services for visually impaired people, but these appeals rely on messaging that perpetuates negative ideas about disability. Organisations’ public relations material should endeavour to place persons with disabilities at the centre as key stakeholders, decision-makers, and agents in their own rehabilitation, growth, and development processes. This does not necessarily have to come at the expense of appeals for financial support from the broader public, but the messages that frame these appeals should be more carefully considered.

– Dr Michelle Botha is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Life Course Health Research at Stellenbosch University.


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