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Feature Article of Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Columnist: Avoke, Selete Kofi

The nexus between poverty, affluence and disability in Ghana

According to unofficial records, Ghana has approximately 3 million individuals with disabilities out of a population of about 25 million. Disabilities are part of the human experience. Generally speaking, persons with disabilities can be found in almost every village, town and city. Despite the several years of legislations and lackluster investments by the government, non-governmental agencies and religious entities, it appears the dismal situation that these individual’s encounter continue to persist. Invariably, vast numbers of individuals with disabilities are unemployed or underemployed and live in abject poverty. As Ghanaians, we have failed to acknowledge the prevalence and complexity of poverty, affluence, and its relation to disability and employment.
A major law, the Ghanaian Disability Act (Act 2006) Section 18 states that “the government shall provide free education for persons with disabilities”. In reality, do we have mechanisms in place to ensure that this law is being implemented with fidelity?. The poverty rate for deprived areas has increased over the years since wealth is concentrated in the capitals of the country. Most Ghanaians living in these rural areas do not have access to adequate health facilities or well-equipped schools with resources. Some of these areas also do not have access to good drinking water and sanitation tends to be suspect. I am not saying that the situation in the capitals is perfect. Yes, there are pockets of areas in some capitals that can comfortably be compared to some of the rural areas in terms of sanitation, access to good schools, access to health facilities and resourced schools. Sobering as these may sound if one looks at the total picture of the landscape in Ghana, those individuals that are well to do in some of these capitals can afford to send their children to the better schools that provide services to their children with disabilities. However, those that live in these rural areas do not have the same opportunity to do so. Thus, the question becomes how does the government of Ghana ensure equity and access into programs for all children with disabilities?.
The effects of poverty are more than simply the lack of money. If one grows up in a rural area, or in an underprivileged area in the capital or in a penurious home or a devastated neighborhood, one is likely to attend schools that are not well-resourced. Often times, these schools have teachers that are not well qualified, use of technology is non-existent and parents are not involved with their children’s education. Inevitably, attending high poverty under-resourced schools has an impact on pupils with disabilities. In some cases, children with disabilities are kept at home.
The co-occurrence of disability and poverty is closely associated with poor outcomes. If you are poor, it is very difficult to attend school unless you are lucky to come across some benevolent benefactors. For those with disabilities living in underprivileged areas, the poverty issue becomes multiplied. Having a child with disabilities is a very expensive venture. It involves extra cost and tends to affect the family as a whole. This episodic event tends to consume the family’s meager resources. In addition, growing up in poverty may increase the possibility of having children that may be disabled. This is not to say that the poor tend to have more children with disabilities. Rather, living in distressful areas may expose one to unsafe water, inadequate health, and access to pre-natal facilities, environmental stress, and lack of money for the basic essentials. On the other hand, there are cases where the affluent increasingly are also being exposed to these risk factors. For example, you have situations whereby the affluent in the capitals are more likely to engage in habits like drinking and smoking. These are risk factor that affect the unborn child and thus leads to children being born with very low weight and incidences of various disabilities, including learning disabilities. In addition, the taste and consumption of processed meats, sugar coated soft drinks and imported processed food also causes lasting damaging effects on the unborn child.
One area that has not gotten much attention is learning disabilities. This disability area is considered an unseen disability. Anecdotal data suggests that this disability has been with us for a long time. More often than not, it tends to afflict individuals from more affluent societies than those from less privileged. Take a look back to when you were in elementary or secondary school. There were some students that no matter how hard they studied just could not do well. More often than not, these students came from affluent families. Teachers often branded these children as “lazy students” just because their parents were well to do. Till date, the area of learning disabilities has not been comprehensively investigated or addressed in Ghana. Yes, we have some programs for those that have visible disabilities (hearing impairment, visually impairment, mental retardation and physical disabilities). However, learning disabilities is a very complex area of disability that requires a scientific approach. In their quest to see improved results for their children, you see some affluent families paying huge sums of money to private teachers in order for their children to be taught the subject matter so that they can pass and go to the next stage in the educational venture. After spending so much money, they realize their children are unable to experience any positive educational outcomes. Unfortunately, the manner children with learning disabilities process information is rather complex. For such children to overcome their learning challenges, it requires working with an expert in exceptional education who is grounded in the sciences of attention, memory, meta-cognition, motivation, cognitive psycholinguistic, literacy, technology and neuroscience.
Finally, the issue of disabilities is an equal opportunity problem that has to be addressed in a comprehensive fashion. Disability cuts across the political, social and economic divide. Having a safe environment, access to quality health, qualified teachers and support services, well-resourced schools, with adequate assistive technology, early interventions, additional funding, can profoundly improve the current dismal situation. The government has to challenge itself to ensure that there is some parity in allocation of resources. There is no reason why we continue to exclude a large percentage of our population who can contribute to Ghana’s productivity and our gross national product. We have to recognize that as long as we are alive we will one day grow into our old age, and most of us will experience a measure of poverty and chronic disabilities. Let us stop the wastage and invest in our human capital. Truth be told, how many houses or cars does an individual really need?. Most of us are more interested in supporting beauty pageants than supporting individuals with disabilities. As a nation, we are more concerned about the next football championship than our support for individuals with disabilities. Let us do the right thing and posterity will surely be kind to us in our old age.

The writer, Dr. Selete Kofi Avoke is an exceptional education consultant and an adjunct professor based in the USA. (logbatota@gmail.com and 301-335-8861)

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