Millions of African people living with disabilities remain invisible despite laws that call for inclusion and equality. As a result, they lack access to basic needs. Some are now fighting to improve their situation.
Yaw Ofori-Debra, a Ghanaian, became blind at age nine after developing cataracts, a gray area in the eye’s lens that leads to decreased vision. At the time, Ofori-Debra attended elementary school in Ghana and had to drop out. Restoring his eyesight became an uphill task for his family because of the financial constraints and the lack of proper medication.
“I was so sad because all my friends abandoned me. I never saw them again and always stayed home when everyone went to the family farm to work. So loneliness became part of my life,” Ofori-Debra told DW.
It was not until he enrolled in a school of the blind in the Brong-Ahafo region in Ghana that he restored his hopes for a better life. He later attended high school, and at the university, Ofori-Debra graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in education. Ofori-Debra is now the President of the Ghana Federation of people with disabilities.
“The youths with disabilities in Ghana are taking advantage of educational opportunities, and many of them have now graduated with accolades,” he explained, “but the main challenge is employment.”
More than 80 million Africans live with disabilities, according to the United Nations. In addition, the UN has warned that the impact of conflicts in Africa’s hotspots has also increased the number of people living with disabilities on the continent.
“This results from neglect from family members and the stigma they face daily. In addition, many families think that educating a disabled child is a waste of the meager resources at their disposal,” Ofori-Debra further explained.
Although Ghana is among the few countries in Africa with laws that protect and guarantee the rights of persons with disabilities, implementing the policies has remained another challenge.
Like Ghana, Uganda enacted the Persons with Disabilities Act which, among others, promotes the education and welfare of disabled people. But the stigma remains high, says Robert Nkwangu, the executive secretary of the Uganda National Association of the Deaf (UNAD), which does advocacy and policy influence for its members.
“In some families and society in general, people call us derogatory or abusive names like Kasiru, which means someone stupid in the Luganda language,” Nkwangu said.
Little access to education
In Uganda, many people with impaired hearing drop out of school early, not because they have failed academically but because they cannot access information, according to Nkwangu.
“There’s also a lack of awareness and traditional beliefs and myths in society that persons living with disabilities are a curse from the ancestors.”
According to a study by the UN on culture, beliefs, and disability, several factors can contribute to the formation and perpetuation of negative opinions about disability. They include misconceptions or social constructions concerning the causes of disabilities and a lack of understanding and awareness.
The study also showed that negative beliefs about disability differ based on types of impairment, and prejudices are often particularly pronounced in the case of psychosocial disabilities. For example, a person born with a physical impairment may experience greater bias than someone who later acquired their impairment through an accident.
Based on its field studies in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Senegal, Uganda, and Zambia, the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) also reported that common beliefs about the causes of childhood disability include: sin or promiscuity of the mother, an ancestral curse, or demonic possession.
Catherine Mwangi, the country representative of the Voluntary Service Organization (VSO) in Kenya, told DW that many households are ashamed of a child born with a disability.
“Families don’t want to embrace that child. And so, as the child grows up, they are mostly hidden from the public and the decision-making process. So they are left behind,” Mwangi said.
But in a ray of hope, Nigeria’s security service is planning to set up disability duty desks specifically designed to handle cases of persons with disabilities.
“Most persons with disabilities are faced with mobility challenges. Disability organizations have been coming through to lobby and see how they can be facilitated and supported with assistive devices to be able to move,” Mwangi said.
Call to embrace those living with disabilities
Many potential employers are often hesitant to hire people with disabilities. However, Ofori-Debra, some employers who have encountered persons with disabilities, know their potential.
“You cannot put the blame squarely on them because some have not had any experience with persons with disability,” he explained. However, he said, “sometimes disabled people excel in areas where those with abilities cannot.”
“I would say the first responsibility of the community is to embrace everybody, regardless of the challenges or impairments they are facing. And that’s what we also have been doing in most of the communities we work in,” Mwangi stressed.