Navigating disability and identity

27 June 2014 | Story by Newsroom

Graduation season marks a moment to celebrate the students of UCT, and the extraordinary personal, professional, and socio-economic obstacles they overcome to complete their degrees.

One such graduand is Michelle Botha, who was awarded an MSocSci in Gender Studies for her research into the ways in which people living with disability '“ women in particular '“ negotiate narrow, socially constructed discourses of disability.

Botha, who herself is visually impaired, suggests that, because disabled women negotiate a narrow space between the reality of their bodily experience and negative constructions of what it means to inhabit such bodies, they are prevented from expressing the complexity of disabled experience.

"The intersection of impaired bodies, narrow stereotypes and multiple other subject positions forms complex and fluid experiences which remain suppressed by narrow theorising, fearful society and disabled people anxious to maintain social acceptance," reads the abstract to her dissertation, Responding to Difference: An Exploration of Blind Women's Responses to Dominant Discourses of Disability.

"Disability is an under-researched area in South Africa and is often only narrowly engaged within discussions of transformation," says Botha. "I wanted my research to highlight how 'disablism' functions through discourse, looking beyond the dominant concern with material barriers to inclusion to how these barriers are entrenched through narrow constructions of what it means to have a body that is different.

"I'm particularly interested in women's experiences of disability, probably because of my own experience of being a blind woman."

The classically-trained singer, who already has a degree in music, plans to continue working as a vocal coach and singing teacher, mostly with children, while she searches for work in the disability sector.

"I'm passionate about disability awareness training and supporting disabled people, so I hope to be able to do that kind of work," she says.

"I would just like to mention how supportive the staff at the UCT disability services are '“ they really do amazing work," adds Botha. "And of course the star is Panda, [my] guide dog, who was puppy-walked by Sheila Taylor, who works at the South African College of Music, and her wonderful family."

Words from Panda's first family

After arriving at the Taylor's home on Mother's Day in 2010 Panda spent her formative years with the family, training to become a guide-dog.

"I was so proud to see Panda go up on stage with Michelle at her graduation, and of course have shared the link to the UCT news feed showing her off to everyone on my Facebook page!" says Taylor.

The family taught Panda the basics '“ which is actually quite a mouthful '“ of being a guide-dog before the Labrador retriever passed to Botha's care.

"As puppy-walkers it was our job as a family to raise her essentially with the manners we should all teach our dogs, but sometimes let things slide," admits Taylor. "Things like not sleeping on the bed or couch, not feeding them people-food, not begging at the table; also specialist things like taking treats from the hand very gently when you are training them '“ luckily Labradors love food, so it makes using 'incentives' very successful!"

It's a process that requires dedication from both humans and canine if the pup is to become a disciplined and calm guide. Puppy-walkers must make their charges familiar with travelling in the foot well of the passenger side of cars, as well as ensuring the puppy doesn't bark and display aggression.

"We also have to expose the puppy to all sorts of situations so they are not frightened by something strange. I know the SA Guide Dogs Association were very happy with the fact that my husband and sons ride motorbikes, one of which is very noisy, which can be scary to a puppy," Taylor reports. "We have cats so the puppy learns not to chase them; also, we have wooden see-through stairs which are very difficult for dogs to negotiate as they can see what's on the other side and may be anxious.

"Part of the puppy training includes walks on these types of stairs specifically to familiarise them and give them confidence."

Socialising Panda was crucial, says Taylor, and she accompanied the family wherever possible, be it the beach, restaurants, school sports matches, and of course visits to the park where she met other dogs and people.

The park presented a unique challenge.

"Puppies are not encouraged to chase balls '“ with Panda it was squirrels in the park!" says Taylor. "She would run from tree to tree, remembering where she had seen a squirrel before! I am reasonably sure Michelle is aware when there is a squirrel in the vicinity, but Panda of course is so well-trained now she doesn't chase '“ she just gets very alert!"

The family "walked" two puppies so far, and has been a "holiday home" for three other dogs while their families have been away.

Taylor admits that it's tough to let the grown-up dogs go.

"They certainly do creep into your heart and it is very difficult not to spoil them too much, knowing what valuable work they will be doing for the rest of their lives."

Story by Yusuf Omar. Image by Je'nine May.

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