Youth in Ghana Call for Improved Education, Access and Rights for the Disabled


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ACCRA, GHANA ­– Abigail Bentil Holton, 26, is blind. But she says that, despite her disability, she has achieved a lot.

Holton attained her Bachelor of Arts in political science and French at the University of Ghana. She is currently working with the African Forum Secretariat, an office associated with the Ghana Blind Union, part of the Ghana Association of the Blind, a nongovernmental organization, NGO.

But Holton says it hasn’t been easy. Her biggest challenges have mostly arisen in the areas of education and employment, she says.

“I found it a bit difficult to go through education, especially tertiary education, because of the unavailability of resource materials needed to make me excel academically,” she says. “I mostly had to rely on friends more than systems and resources to help me pass.”

She says finding a job was also difficult.

“The other challenge is also in the area of employment, where employers look at me and only see the blind person and not the potential in me,” she says.

Moreover, she says that people with disabilities in Ghana lack a voice to genuinely contribute to the issues affecting them.

“Even when they try to make their voices heard, their inputs are not taken into consideration,” she says. “When the chance to participate is finally given, it is given as a form of token or duty.”

She says that many organizations advocate for people with disabilities, but that attitudes are slow to change because people regard supporting them as a form of charity instead of responsibility.

“Apathy and sympathy is a big challenge in the field of my work, as well as tokenism,” she says, referring to the practice of making no more than a token effort or gesture to help.

She says that even when people listen, actions don’t always follow.

“People choose to hear you whenever they have got the chance but don’t listen to me and my group as a matter of urgency that requires prompt action,” she says.

But she says that she is taking action, as she has attained her degree and has joined groups to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities and the rights of young people, her other passion. She is currently involved in a project to raise funds to educate blind and needy children from primary to tertiary school.

Young people with disabilities in Ghana are speaking up to demand equal rights with other citizens, starting with urging the government to ratify a U.N. convention, after a conference in Kenya. They say that education is one area in need of more equality. The first World Report on Disability also calls attention to shortcomings in services for people with disabilities in Ghana. NGOs and the government have implemented various initiatives, but they admit more needs to be done.

Ghana’s disability prevalence was 12.8 percent from 2002 to 2004, according to the 2011 World Report on Disability, released in June by the World Bank and the World Health Organization. But locally, there are no statistics available on people with disabilities in Ghana, according to the office of Abdulai Doute, national coordinator for people with disabilities. The 2010 census was the first to include disability issues, but the final results have not yet been released.

More than 50 young people from various African countries, including Ghana, traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, earlier this year to participate in the African Youth With Disabilities Convening. The Open Society Initiative for East Africa, which seeks to shape public policies that assure greater fairness in political, legal and economic systems and safeguard citizens’ fundamental rights, organized the event to empower young people with disabilities and build their capacity to best approach issues concerning them.

The conference aimed to create a platform to bring together young people with diverse disabilities, teach them how to use the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, UNCRPD, as an advocacy tool, and synergize their efforts and resources to achieve their common goal of implementing the convention. The UNCRPD is an international agreement that requires governments around the world to uphold and respect the rights of people with disabilities.

Nearly 150 countries and regional integration organizations have signed the UNCRPD, which was adopted in 2006, open for signature in 2007 and came into force in 2008, and more than 100 have ratified it, committing them to removing barriers so that people with disabilities may participate fully in their societies. Ghana has signed but not ratified the UNCRPD.

Doute was not available for comment on why the government hasn’t ratified the convention, according to his office.

“I am dying to see the day that the government will ratify the UNCRPD,” Holton says. “It is very important for us if someday persons with disability will be respected and would also have a place in society.”

She says she hopes the government will ratify it soon.

“I would like [the] government to give some impetus to the implementation of the convention when it is ratified and also to criminalize all acts that would be done in contravention to the UNCRPD and also accord the respect and urgency necessary to disability issues,” she says.

Vladimir Cuk, who helped organize the African Youth With Disabilities Convening, has been working in this field for more than 20 years. He says that the participation of the young people at the convening was amazing, passionate, motivated, informed and excellent.

“I cannot explain!” he says. “I try to recall if I have seen such active young people. [I] never saw such an amazing and promising group of young leaders, and I am getting inspired every day by working with them. What we have today is a beginning of a new movement in the African continent.”

He says that young people have to harness the UNCRPD as their own tool and know that they have the power to claim rights because of it. Cuk says that bringing young people together to unify their voices and teach them how to use the convention as a tool in their work is a big achievement. He says he hopes that the young people at the convening stick together to accomplish their goals.

He says he also hopes to see more investment by the government and international donors, campaigns across the nation and continent, inclusive education, and partnerships with other disabled people organizations and agencies.

People with disabilities say one challenge they face is education, especially for people with multiple disabilities. Some educational facilities lack braille, sign language interpreters, and wheelchairs and crutches for students who are physically disabled.

There are schools solely for people with disabilities, such as the Akropong School for the Blind and Cape Coast School for the Deaf. But some say that these schools promote segregation.

Barbara Nandutu, a young Ugandan woman, was one of the participants at the convening. She says she took the initiative to live positively with her disability – her motto – from a young age in order to obtain an education.

“In the mornings, when I saw my sister getting set and finally leaving for school, I either cried wanting to go with her or I sneaked out and followed her,” she says. “They would later realize I was missing and would later pick me from the roadside.”

Thanks to her persistence, she says her family eventually agreed to let her attend school with her sister.

“Sometimes I would get dressed [in] her other uniform [inside out] and would insist to be taken to school, too,” she says. “This showed them that I desired to go to school, and they finally took me. I was so lucky that I went to school right from nursery unlike other disabled children, who are rarely taken to school right from nursery. They usually join from primary level one.”

Still, she says attending school with her disability hasn’t always been easy.

“When I got to high school, I faced some challenges with inaccessible school structures, like the stairs at the library, long distances between the school, hostel, the classes and dining hall, but this didn’t stop me,” she says. “I made sure I reached anywhere I wanted to go, though sometimes with a lot of difficulty.”

She says these challenges didn’t discourage her from gaining admission to the university of her dreams, Makerere University in Uganda, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in adult and community education. She is currently working on a sexual and reproductive health rights project for the National Union of Women With Disabilities of Uganda, which works for the unity, self-esteem and advancement of women with disabilities.

“I did not let my disability stop me from doing things I would have done as a normal person,” says Nandutu, who has held various leadership positions in school and at work.

She says the African Youth With Disabilities Convening is a wake-up call for all governments to make policies, ratify the UNCRPD and take into consideration the plight of people with disabilities.

In June, the World Health Organization and the World Bank released the first World Report on Disability, which estimated that more than 1 billion people have some form of disability. The report found that users of community-based rehabilitation in Ghana showed little impact on physical well-being because the workers had difficulties providing physical rehabilitation, assistive devices and referral services. It also found that Ghana provided limited access to therapy and assistive technologies – with not one rehabilitation doctor or occupational therapist in the country and only a few prosthetists, orthotists and physical therapists working here.

Robert B. Zoellick, president of The World Bank Group, said in the report press release that governments needed to address issues of health, education, employment and other developmental needs of people living with disabilities.

“We need to help people with disabilities to gain equitable access to opportunities to participate and contribute to their communities,” he said. “They have much to offer if given a fair chance to do so.”

Unions and NGOs here strive to cater to the needs of people with disabilities. For example, the Ghana Association for the Blind aims to address the needs of blind and visually impaired people in Ghana and to empower them.

The Ghana Society for the Socially Disadvantaged is a skills-training institution for people with all types of disabilities, where they learn crafts such as sewing, basket weaving, pottery, chalk-making, clothes-making, and arts and crafts. Solomon Ainoo, who is disabled, assists with tie-dye in the society’s arts and crafts center.

“We face a lot of problems, especially when accessing transport services,” he says. “When you are struggling for a bus, people keep pushing and pushing because they say only the fittest shall survive, and this is very difficult for us.”

He says he wasn’t aware of the UNCRPD or that the government hasn’t ratified it, but that the governments can’t make all the provisions alone. He says it’s important for other organizations to come aboard and address the plight of people with disabilities. For example, Ainoo also gets involved as a Youth Advisory Panel member of the United Nations Populations Fund, UNFPA.

“Some of us have talents just like any other abled person,” he says. “I am one of the lucky ones to be on UNFPA’s Youth Advisory Panel and help them in decision-making, especially when it comes to decisions for program[s] aimed towards persons with disability. What about the others?”

The government has also created policies to see to the needs of people with disabilities.

The president of Ghana inaugurated the National Council on Persons with Disability in 2009 to propose and evolve policies and strategies to enable people with disabilities to enter and participate in the mainstream national development process. In addition, the government passed the Persons with Disability Law in 2006, which covers areas such as employment, health care, transportation and education.

The government has also set enrollment targets, such as one that stipulates that all children with nonsevere special educational needs are educated in mainstream schools by 2015, according to the World Report on Disability. The constitution also has an anti-discrimination clause on disability.

“While these achievements must be acknowledged and celebrated, we need to recognize at the same time that there is much more work ahead of us still,” said Enoch Teye Mensah, minister for employment and social welfare, last month at the opening of the Fifth African Forum on Blindness.

Ghana hosted the Fifth African Forum on Blindness in Accra, the capital. The Ghana Union of the Blind collaborated with the World Blind Union and the Africa Union of the Blind to coordinate the four-day forum.

“We will persist in this because we believe that a safer, stronger Ghana will be achieved through developing a more equal Ghana – a Ghana where everyone has opportunities to fulfill their potential, where no talent is wasted,” Mensah said.

Holton says that people with disabilities must continue to fight for their rights based on these successes.

“We struggled together to make sure that the Disability Act was passed into law,” she says.