Fizel and the CSRC dancers, ready for action, and always up for fun!
The Unique Space Two Cultures Connect: Dialogue with A Disability Organisation Driver
by Kirsten Steenkamp
The development and harmonious living of humankind relies on diversity. Our strength rests in collaborating with those who are different to us, learning unique perspectives and having greater insight into the uncountable worldviews that make up this beautiful planet.
When we stop focusing on just the differences between people – physical, cognitive, emotional, or sensory – we are able to recognise the importance of each person’s social and cultural identity. Having an identity means looking at their person in their context, knowing that everything about their world influences how they think, react, speak, and interact. Having an identity also indicates the belonging to a greater community, a lens, a culture through which one looks at the world.
21 May is colloquially known as Diversity Day, a UN-sanctioned celebration that is formally articled as World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. According to UNESCO, this day highlights the “essential role of intercultural dialogue for achieving peace and sustainable development.”
Though media tends to spotlight cultures of different nationalities, sexual orientations, and ethnicities, there is a distinct community which holds unique cultural value around the world. The undeniably complex – but incredibly distinct culture of disability.
People with disabilities share recognisable beliefs, values, goals, and social practices. Some commonly held values within this culture speak to the need for mutual respect and belonging, the enjoyment of mobility and accessibility, and the right to be truly productive. These values are underpinned by the right of disabled people to be seen as inherently worthy in society.
Their shared goals, which are passionately embodied by ability activists, are primarily driven by social inclusion and promoting equal access to opportunities in the community, workplace, and in society.
Tragically, misinformation and a global misunderstanding of the disabled community feeds harmful attitudes. And this prejudice breeds discrimination and ill treatment of disabled people in communities across the world. Today, with the aim of growing acceptance, appreciation and a greater understanding of disability, we enter into conversation with Fizel Abrahams.
A soft-spoken and gentle person, Fizel has become immersed in the transport needs of a holistic disability organisation in Cape Town, as well as the community it serves. Working with people with disabilities for more than 9 years, in The Chaeli Campaign, he fills a crucial role. Without Fizel, the lack of accessible transport in South Africa would’ve meant that dozens of beneficiaries – children and adults – would struggle to access vital services, attend appointments, and take part in various social events!
Fizel has a special relationship with those he transports, especially as he is often the only one in the car with them. He has connected particularly deeply with the CSRC dancers, a group that came together when most were still children. Getting to know the hearts and minds of dancers with disabilities, Fizel does not often share how he has been changed by his work. Allowing us to enter into his world, Fizel shares his thoughts on why dialogue is a significant tool to create understanding and compassion for one another.
While Fizel was working for his previous company, the drivers were often contacted by The Chaeli Campaign. Every Sunday, the CSRC dancers would need to be transported from their homes around Cape Town to the Bergvliet Sports Association. And over some years, Fizel and his team provided an accessible service which enabled people with disabilities to get around town more independently.
Sadly, Fizel would regularly encounter other drivers who either refused to, or had to be convinced to, assist disabled passengers by lifting them into and out of the vehicles. Fizel remarks that drivers almost acted as if they could get a virus from touching someone with a disability, and it was so obvious they were only thinking of themselves. Fizel asks, “Why must you treat people like animals? You would never want others to treat you like that.”
Some years had passed when Fizel asked Zelda, the CEO of The Chaeli Campaign, if the organisation needed a full-time driver. Within two weeks, he was officially employed! Speaking candidly about his interaction with Zelda, Fizel said: “she noticed me. She liked the way I worked with the kids. I like to work with disabled people. And the kids always leave my car laughing, I make them happy.”
“I don’t understand why people are scared. If I must confront someone, I would make them understand how to connect and work with (disabled) people. I’m just straightforward. For example, if someone asked me about Chaeli, I would take them – maybe by the hand – and take them in front of Chaeli. She’s the only one who can answer the questions you want to ask.”
Intercultural dialogue is imperative, as it opens the door to advance empathy and mutual understanding. Fizel – speaking as someone who is non-disabled – says that “you won’t know if you don’t connect with (disabled people). Speak with them, try to know them, learn to know them. The more you interact, the more comfortable you’ll get around them.”
What many people are afraid to think about – and dare not say aloud – is that anyone can be impacted by disability. This is the truth, no matter which way we try to sugar-coat it. “(Disability) can happen to someone in your family. That could even be me sitting in that wheelchair. I put myself in their shoes to see how that person feels.”
One of the most beautiful, but complicated, aspects of the disability community, is that each person – and their life experience – is totally different. A common expression within the community is ‘if you’ve met a disabled person, you’ve only met one disabled person.’
More than anything, Fizel is reminded each day that respect is the main thing in life. He has learned to care more about others, and wishes that others would be more willing to help and learn about disability. “I like to hear how (my passengers’) minds work, what they have to say, their experience of life. That’s how I learn from them.”
We should be inspired to get to know each other personally, irrespective of any preconceived ideas we may form by judging a person’s exterior. Only in this way will our beliefs about those who are “different” to us ever change.
Let’s choose to keep challenging our own perceptions and negative stereotypes about people who we perceive to be different to us. Be human. Have the courage to connect. Speak with love. Listen to understand. And cherish the diversity of the human spirit.
Dialogue has the power to heal and restore hope. And it happens when we are brave enough to start a conversation, even – and perhaps, especially – if it scares us. Through learning from different cultures we can enjoy the unique experiences and insights they have to share, and then to invite them into our world.
Become part of a greater conversation to shift misperceptions and prejudice by withholding your judgement, saying hello and relating as unique people! If we are open-minded in our interactions with others, we are likely to find we are not so different after all.