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The Representation of Persons with Disabilities in Selected African Fiction

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The concept of disability as an entity worthy of study in African literature is hardly ever considered, yet it an engaging issue. Disability means different things to different people at different times and that is what the research work sought.


The four works under study: Aminata Sow Fall’s The Beggars’ Strike, Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine, Cyprian Ekwensi’s The Drummerboy, and Gabriel Okara’s The Voice looked at the subject of disability and depicted persons with disabilities in these three dimensions. They achieved this through the use of some key literary devices that served as a medium to efficiently carry out the assignment of depicting persons with disabilities and their experiences.

The research work looked at the following as it discussed the subject of disability in these four texts: how disability is viewed in the selected works; the imagery that is recurrent in these works; how disability is connected to traditional, moral and ethical norms and what disability means for the subject.

This was achieved by doing a Marxist analytical study of some characters with disabilities in the texts in order to show the relationship between the disabled characters and society. This work discovered three ways disability has been portrayed in literature – positive portrayal, negative portrayal and ambivalent portrayal.



1.1 Background of the Study

“Mmebi aha ogaranya ka ogbugbu ya” – An adage

“The ruining of a wealthy man’s name is worse than murdering him” – My translation.

 This is a popular saying among the Igbo that expresses the great importance attached to labelling, whether positive or negative. This value however is not confined to the Igbos and by extension Africa but it is a universal principle. In proper translation, it simply denotes that life is not worth living without a good name i.e. reputation.

I would like at this point to explain the expression “wealthy man” as mentioned above. It does not necessarily refer to one who has excess money and other material things of life but rather human dignity. This is evident in this anecdote, “Nwanza bu eze n’akwu ya”, meaning, a sunbird is king in his own nest. This of course, stresses the fact that everyone is deserving of honour and fairness regardless of physical, mental or financial status.

It is not surprising therefore, that the concept of disability is not new in African literature, both the written and the oral contain lots of characters with varying degrees of disabilities. But surprisingly, these characters most of the time are not the actual focal point rather they are minor characters even when seemingly the protagonists. Consequently, not much has critically been done in this regard. So this research will be focusing on this area with particular interest on the representation of persons with disability in African fiction using selected texts. In this research, there is a critical look at the different representations of people with disabilities and analyses of how the different attitudes of the society are created in the selected novels. The work will give attention to issues like:

What is regarded as disability in the selected works.

The imagery that is recurrent in these works.

How these attitudes have been enshrined in the traditional, moral and ethical norms.

What disability means for the subject.

The work would also consider the discourses, images, proverbs, metaphors and fantasies through which the selected texts ascribe meanings to experiences of characters with disability. These would be achieved by following a distinctive theoretical perspective on literary disability studies, which is Marxist literary criticism.

It is to be noted that disability is a social phenomenon; that is why words like handicap, deformity, invalidity, etc are interchangeably used in many contexts. This is the reason for the use of the Marxist literary analytical method for the analysis of the texts. The research examines the representation of persons with disabilities in four selected African fiction: namely, Aminata Sow Fall’s The Beggars’ Strike, Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine, Cyprian Ekwensi’s The Drummer Boy, and Gabriel Okara’s The Voice.


Disability over the years has been viewed and defined by different peoples and cultures in various ways and this is strictly tied to value system. Generally speaking, it can be defined as a condition whether social, religious, material/financial, physical, mental or sensory that limits one’s expected performance.

Disability has been given several connotations. According to Ozorji (2005), disability simply refers to loss of ability or loss of functions. Literarily, disability is made up of two words: dis (lack/absence of) and ability. Put in another way, disability means lack of ability. It also means functional limitations or activity restriction or lack of (resulting from impairment) ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being. Impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Thus disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.

It is important to note that disability may be physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional, developmental or some combination of these. A disability may be present from birth, or occur during a person’s lifetime.

Disability apart from the definitions above is further defined from various angles some of which will be highlighted here. The definition reflects the stereotypes and tags on persons with various forms of disabilities over the years, re-enforced through our oral tradition and later by the written texts.

Among the Rwandans and Kenyans, the word disability literally denotes worthlessness which is captured in the expression, “ichimuga” meaning broken pot. Similar to this is what we find in the following words derived from three different dialects of the Igbo language expressing the same thing. “Ndi ahu ruru” “Ndi nkwaru” “Ndi olusi”. The transliteration of these expressions anchor on distortion, deformity, abnormality, disfigurement. In the Yoruba language, disability is called “a birun” transliterated (borne smelling) also the hausa calls it “nakasasu” meaning (incomplete or worthless people)

Medically, it is defined in the FreeOnlineDictionary as inability to function normally, physically or mentally; incapacity. It states that, it is anything that causes disability. And as defined by the American Federal government: “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to last or has lasted for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Developmental disability, it continues: is a substantial handicap of indefinite duration, with onset before the age of 18 years, such as mental retardation, autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, or other neuropathy.

The Russian Encyclopedia of 1979 definition of disability tilts in the same direction. It asserts that, “Disability (Russian, ‘invalidnost’), the complete or partial loss of the ability to work either permanently or for a prolonged period as a result of illness or injury. Disability also refers to those persons not yet of pension age with prolonged loss of work ability because of diseases, traumas, or defects of development.”

These definitions and the negative attitude attached to them are not limited to western world alone; it is also common in Africa. A few adjectives applied in the description of persons with disability elucidate these facts. Among the Igbo and the Hausa, for example, blindness does not just mean sightlessness; it both denotes and connotes foolishness and invalidity. These adjectives do not stop at description but also become nomenclatures. An unpopular proverb I heard from an adult asserts that “a blind woman does not know when she’s gone into except the tip of the penis is robbed on her eyes.” This is but one out of the many derogatory remarks and clichés on persons with disability.

It will be observed that in the general description of persons with disability a part often becomes the whole, for example, the lame, the blind, the deaf, etc. Thus, the medical and social module of describing disability forms the standard and parochial view. “Socially speaking, a greater percentage of people consider disability “a curse” and in some extreme situations contagious.



Disability is a complex and knotty phenomenon to define, how much more to trace historically. However, some attempts have been made by philosophers in this regard.

Philosophers have always lived among people who could not see, walk, or hear; who had limited mobility, comprehension or longevity, or chronic illnesses of various sorts. And yet philosophical interest in these conditions was piecemeal and occasional until the past hundred or so years. Some of these conditions were cited in litanies of life’s hardships or evils; some were the vehicle for inquiries into the relationship between human faculties and human knowledge [see SEP entry on “Molyneux’s Problem”] . But the treatment of disability as a subject of philosophical interest is relatively new.

The lack of attention to “disability” or “impairment” in general may have a simple explanation: there were no such concepts to attend to until 19th century scientific thinking put variations in human function and form into categories of abnormality and deviance. Once such categories were established, it became possible to talk, and generalize, about “the disabled,” and philosophers have done so for various purposes. The resurgent political philosophy of the second half of the last century, preoccupied with eliminating or reducing unearned disadvantages, tended to treat disability as a primary source of those disadvantages, to be addressed with medical correction or government compensation. Somewhat later, social philosophers began to see disability as a source both of discrimination and oppression, and of group identity, akin to race or sex in these respects.

In some ways, disability looks much like sex or race as a philosophical topic. It concerns the classification of people on the basis of observed or inferred characteristics. It raises difficult threshold questions about the extent to which the classification is based on biology or is socially constructed. And yet the strong philosophical interest in some of the characteristics on which the disability classification is based appears to accord them a significance that many would deny to the distinguishing characteristics of sex or race.

Consider, for example, the question of how well-being is affected by the characteristics on which the disability classification is based. There is little interest now in the question of whether, in a world without discrimination, blacks or women would do better or worse on various metrics of well-being than whites or men. In contrast, there is considerable interest in this question when the subject is people with disabilities. Some philosophers and disability scholars claim that the answer is no different than in the case of race or sex: to the extent that disability reduces well-being, it is because of the stigma and discrimination it evokes. In contrast, other philosophers claim that disability is fundamentally different from race and gender in that it necessarily reduces well-being even in a utopian world of non-discrimination, people with blindness, deafness or paraplegia would be worse off than their able-bodied counterparts. This is but one example of the many ways that disability generates philosophical debate about some of our most familiar ethical, political, and epistemological concepts.

The definition of disability is highly contentious for several reasons. First, it is only in the past century that the term “disability” has been used to refer to a distinct class of people. Historically, “disability” has been used either as a synonym for “inability” or as a reference to legally imposed limitations on rights and powers. Indeed, as late as 2006, the Oxford English Dictionary recognized only these two senses of the term (Boorse, 2010). As a result, it is hard to settle questions about the meaning of “disability” by appeal to intuitions, since intuitions may be confused by the interplay between older, ordinary-language definitions and newer, specialized ones.


Second, many different characteristics are considered disabilities. Paraplegia, deafness, blindness, diabetes, autism, epilepsy, depression, and HIV have all been classified as “disabilities.” The term covers such diverse conditions as the congenital absence or adventitious loss of a limb or a sensory function; progressive neurological conditions like multiple sclerosis; chronic diseases like arteriosclerosis; the inability or limited ability to perform such cognitive functions as remembering faces or calculating sums; and psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. There seems to be little about the functional or experiential states of people with these various conditions to justify a common concept; indeed, there is at least as much variation among “disabled” people with respect to their experiences and bodily states as there is among people who lack disabilities.

At the same time, defining “disability” solely in terms of social responses like stigmatization and exclusion does not distinguish disability from race or sex (Bickenbach, 1993)—a result that some disability scholars might welcome, but that begs, or obscures, an important question. The challenge of distinguishing “disability” from other concepts, without taking a simplistic or reductive view of it, has been taken up by various specialized definitions.

Two common features stand out in most official definitions of disability, such as those in the World Health Organization, the U.N. Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for People with Disabilities, the Disability Discrimination Act (U.K.), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (U.S.) : (i) a physical or mental characteristic labeled or perceived as an impairment or dysfunction (in the remainder of this entry, we will refer to such characteristics as “impairments,” without assuming the objectivity or validity of that label) and (ii) some personal or social limitation associated with that impairment. The classification of a physical or mental variation as an impairment may be statistical, based on the average in some reference groups; biological, based on a theory of human functioning; or normative, based on a view of human flourishing. However classified, impairments are generally seen as traits of the individual that he or she cannot readily alter. Just what makes a condition a trait or attribute of an individual is obscure and debatable, but there seems to be agreement on clear cases (Kahane and Savulescu, 2009). Thus, poverty is not seen as impairment, however disabling it may be seen as impairment, nor is tasteless clothing, even if it is a manifestation of impaired fashion-sense rather than scarce income. On the other hand, diseases are generally classified as impairments, even though they are rarely permanent or static conditions. Diseases that are not long-lasting, however, such as the flu and the measles, do not count as impairments.

The notion of a limitation is broad and elastic, encompassing restrictions on such “basic” actions as lifting one’s arm (Nordenfelt, compare Amundson: actions “at the level of the person”); on more complex physical activities such as dressing and toileting; and on social activities like working, learning or voting (see Wasserman, 2001).

The characterization of both features is disputed. Several scholars have challenged the prevailing view of impairment as objective and biologically grounded (Shakespeare, Davis, Tremain,  Amundson). There is also disagreement about the conceptual and practical need for two categories of limitations, one involving personal activity, the other social or political participation—“disability” and “handicap,” respectively (Wright, 1983; Edwards, 1997; Nordenfelt, 1997; Altman, 2001). But the most controversial issue in defining disability is the relationship between the two. At one extreme are definitions that imply, or are read to imply, that biological impairments are the sole causes of limitation. The definitions in the World Health Organization’s 1980 International Classification of Impairment, Disability, and Handicap, and the Disability Discrimination Act (UK) have been interpreted this way. At the other extreme are definitions that attribute the limitations faced by disabled people solely to “contemporary social organization,” such as the definition given by the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS, 1976). Such definitions appear to treat impairments merely as “evocative” causes—as conditions that are subject to exclusion and oppression. They have been criticized for ignoring disadvantages that cannot be attributed to social attitudes and practices (Terzi, 2009, 2004; Shakespeare, 2006). But in characterizing disability in terms of exclusion, these definitions need not deny that impairments have undesirable aspects, such as pain or discomfort—merely that those aspects are not within the scope, or part of the meaning, of disability.

In-between are definition, which assert that individual impairment and the social environment are jointly sufficient causes of limitation. Perhaps the best-known example is the WHO’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF, 2001), which emphasizes that disability is a “dynamic interaction between health conditions and environmental and personal factors.” Such interactive definitions predominate in current law and commentary on disability; even the International Classification, of Impairments, Disabilities, and Health (ICIDH) and Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) can be interpreted as compatible with this approach. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is generally seen as adopting an interactive approach to disability, although it contains an amalgam of definitional features.

Disability policy scholars describe four different historical and social models of disability:

a moral model of disability which regards disability as the result of sin;

a medical model of disability which regards disability as a defect or sickness which must be cured through medical intervention;

a rehabilitation model, an offshoot of the medical model, which regards the disability as a deficiency that must be fixed by a rehabilitation professional or other helping professional; and

the disability model, under which “the problem is defined as a dominating attitude by professionals and others, inadequate support services when compared with society generally, as well as attitudinal, architectural, sensory, cognitive, economic barriers, and the strong tendency for people to generalize about all persons with disabilities overlooking the large variations within the disability community.”

The moral model is historically the oldest and is less prevalent today in the Western World but still common in Africa. However, there are many cultures that associate disability with sin and shame, and disability is often associated with feelings of guilt, even if such feelings are not overtly based in religious doctrine. For the individual with a disability, this model is particularly burdensome. This model has been associated with shame on the entire family with a member with a disability. Families have hidden away the disabled family members, keeping them out of school and excluded from any chance at having a meaningful role in society. Even in less extreme circumstances, this model has resulted in general social ostracism and self-hatred. The moral and disability models are my working standpoint.

The medical model came about as “modern” medicine began to develop in the 19th Century, along with the enhanced role of the physician in society. Since many disabilities have medical origins, people with disabilities were expected to benefit from coming under the direction of the medical profession. Under this model, the problems that are associated with disability are deemed to reside within the individual. In other words, if the individual is “cured” then these problems will not exist. Society has no underlying responsibility to make a “place” for persons with disabilities, since they are treated as outsiders.

The individual with a disability is on the sick roll under the medical model. When people are sick, they are excused from the normal obligations of society: going to school, getting a job, taking on family responsibilities, etc. They are also expected to come under the authority of the medical profession in order to get better. Thus, until recently, most disability policy issues have been regarded as health issues, and physicians have been regarded as the primary authorities in this policy area.

One can see the influence of the medical model in disability public policy today, most notably in the Social Security system, in which disability is defined as the inability to work. This is consistent with the role of the person with a disability as sick. It is also the source of enormous problems for persons with disabilities who want to work but who would risk losing all related public benefits, such as health care coverage or access to Personal Assistance Services (for in-home chores and personal functioning), since a person loses one’s disability status by going to work.


Experience has shown that the concept of disability in African literary works has not received genuine or the necessary critical attention that it deserves. This research intends to fill a gap in the study of African literature and disabilities studies, which is, that the four texts under study have not been studied together before, as a study of representation of persons with disability. The work has two goals; the first is to examine the portrayal of persons with disability in the already listed works and to compare how the authors were able to present them either in a positive, negative and ambivalent tones. The second is to examine how the characters are represented in the works under study and assess and evaluate the degree of the representations as to which of the texts is the most positive, negative or ambivalent. The problem of disability in the society has been most times attributed to punishment for evil deeds and the resultant factor of alienation has often times been accredited to the impaired as self-imposed.


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