LILONGWE, Malawi — Yamikani walks deliberately, intently, with a bean bag on his head, showing a balance that is probably hard-earned. “When he falls,” his grandmother Irene tells me, “we have to pick him up.” At a Special Olympics event, this is a fact and a philosophy.
A mix of abled and disabled children, ages 2 to 7, navigate a mild obstacle course, stepping over low hurdles, throwing rings around cones. Some scramble. Others can only sit and catch a ball. It is the range of human ability mirrored in every human society. In this small one, on this day, all are valued and cheered.
“We discovered his disability at birth,” Yamikani’s grandmother explains through an interpreter. “His hands were so clenched.” His Special Olympics performance, though not swift, is methodical. “When he is alone,” says his grandmother, “he is withdrawn. When he is like this, he is happy.” Yamikani lost both parents to cholera when he was an infant. When Irene takes him to school or other activities, her village elders tell her she is wasting her time. The word “yamikani,” it turns out, means “praise.” Asked why the name was chosen, she says, “Because he is a gift, thank God.”
Here in Malawi, it is a bad sign, though hardly a unique situation, that all the words in the local language referring to people with intellectual disabilities are disparaging. “Wamisala” is crazy or mad. “Ndondocha” is a small, evil being, like a malevolent leprechaun. Without a positive word, it is hard for the mind to hold a positive image.
People with intellectual disabilities routinely show unsuspected abilities when given half a chance. But in much of the developing world, they are particularly vulnerable. Though attitudes vary by place and tribe, people with intellectual disabilities are often at the mercy of terrible forces. Often it is believed that their parents are being punished for violating a taboo, or even that they stole their child’s soul in order to exchange it, through witchcraft, for some material benefit. Fathers often leave the family, blaming disability on the mother’s lineage. It is little wonder that parents tend to keep their intellectually disabled children locked up at home. I met a child who had been routinely kept on a leash, tied to a stake in the ground, for seven years.
It is a frighteningly common belief in Africa that AIDS can be cured by having sex with a virgin. Since people with intellectual disabilities are presumed to be sexually inactive, some traditional healers will actually prescribe having sex with them — meaning rape — as a form of treatment, which is really a horrifying method of transmission.
This group is the last mile of global development — the ostracized among the disadvantaged. In most cases, they are not even counted in health and education statistics. We count what we value. But they probably represent about 3 percent of any human population — higher in places where cerebral malaria, malnutrition and lack of oxygen during delivery result in additional disability. Their needs are very basic: health services, integration in schools, vocational training, practical help for their caregivers. Political leadership matters to counter stigma, and Malawi’s President Joyce Banda has emerged as Africa’s leader on this issue.
But one of the best ways to counter stigma has been pioneered by Special Olympics. Here in Malawi, participants grow close to their coaches, perhaps the first non-related adults they encounter who do not view them as useless. Parents grow more accustomed to being seen in public with their children in a positive context — the Olympics no less. And it is harder to pity an athlete.
People with intellectual disability are largely invisible in the global development agenda, but they should be its cutting edge. If children such as Yamikani can be reached, everyone can be reached. And the process of reaching them would strengthen a variety of educational, legal and health systems along the way.
But all this depends on a prior philosophic choice. A proper concern for efficiency in development programs can easily decay into utilitarian thinking. Why not invest in the most potentially productive — the fastest around the obstacle course?
The answer is this: Because honoring the dignity of the most vulnerable strengthens the ideal of human dignity itself. And nations that adopt this non-utilitarian ideal cannot view the rule of law, cultural norms or economic justice in quite the same way again.
In a society that gives him no hopeful name, a revolution begins with Praise.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post. Reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2014 The Washington Post Writers Group.