Cursed and abandoned: paralyzed in Liberia

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on February 27, 2017 # Health

A couple of months back, I wrote a mild rant on the shocking number of destitute people with disabilities surviving on the streets of Los Angeles, and by extrapolation, the entire country. If you include both the physically and mentally disabled, they account for around 47% of all homeless people in LA. Learning about this is part of my own ongoing effort to have some perspective on my own life after paralysis, which is a day at the circus by comparison.

Recently, the New York Times ran a feature story about a 27-year-old wheelchair user in Monrovia, Liberia that put even the disabled poor in America in stark contrast. Liberia is a small republic on the west coast of Africa where 85% of the population lives below the international poverty line. The Times story profiled Emmanuel Dongo, who uses both a chair and crutches because of withered legs from an untreated bout of polio when he was very young. Mr. Dongo grew up in a dingy foster home and now lives entirely on his own in a slum of Monrovia. He spends his days begging on the street. The dream that sustains him is to become a rap artist, the only way he sees out of his plight.

What struck me about the story were the ancient beliefs about disability still prevalent in Liberia, generally known but rarely this specific. To quote the article, “(Liberian) society views disability through the lens of superstition … handicapped people are often seen as cursed, their amputations and paralyzed limits viewed as the result of witchcraft by the cruel and envious, or else as punishment for some wrongdoing…”

My first thought upon reading this was, how much further have we advanced from this view of disability? Leaving witchcraft aside, which peaked in America around the time of the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s, I think a lot of people here see people with disabilities as somehow cursed and/or being punished for some transgression. After become paralyzed myself, way back when, I had the exact same thought. “Why am I being punished like this?” I tried desperately to find some terrible wrong that I committed, then correcting it, hoping I’d get better in the process. Magical thinking, for sure, but it was a situation that begged for magic. Then I tried the bargaining stage of grief: The deal was that if I prayed hard enough and asked for forgiveness, I would feel relief from the guilt and self-persecution and even be granted my own slight chance of recovery. For me, at least, that didn’t work, either.

Surely, you say, no one in our modern, evolved culture thinks someone with a disability has been cursed, by life or God? Of course, most would never say it, but may unconsciously believe it. I’ll never forget running into a woman from Orange County at a disability rally whose five-year old son had CP and was being wheeled around in a stroller. She told me she and her son were out one day when this woman approached her and started yelling. “You shouldn’t be coddling that boy!” she said. “He is being punished by God! He needs to be saved!” Lack of faith, in this view, is the source of all disability. How many people actually believe this? Can’t find any hard numbers on this, but a lot of people out there have weird beliefs. One politician in Virginia announced a few years back, in an argument to defund Planned Parenthood, that disabled children were God’s punishment to women who had aborted their first pregnancy. Since he presented no concrete evidence, this could be filed under “alternative facts.”

Back to Liberia: Emmanuel Donga lives in a city where there are no sidewalks or foot paths and he must navigate through traffic jams, potholes, and open manholes to get anywhere. But he has hope and resilience. He ends up most nights at Code 146, a popular club for budding rappers, singing his rhymes:

“I feel too bad when I’m sitting in this wheelchair,

Just want to be walking like you, man.

See me passing and you mocking at me,

Telling me I not even look like a human being…”

© 2017 Allen Rucker

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The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life