Feature Article of Monday, 28 May 2012
Columnist: Sarpong, Kofi
In my maiden article last week, I highlighted the serious lapse in the Persons with Disability Act 2006, where our lawmakers made a cardinal error of judgment by not defining disability. I ended the article by asking for that Act to be revisited, a challenge to our lawmakers to make it workable.
This article will look at the British experience, juxtapose it with the Ghanaian one and draw some conclusions that may help us understand the issues better. This, it is intended, may ultimately aid us in the formulation of proper and sustainable policies to help disabled people in our country.
In my research into disability in Ghana, I have come across so much prejudice it defies belief. In discussions on disabled people and work, a bank manager and a well-known radio presenter, at different times, made statements to the effect that I should not worry myself because ‘even those who are not disabled cannot find work, so I should not talk about the disabled.’ A total misconception and misunderstanding of the issue. When I told them that Roosevelt was a wheelchair user but a President of America, their faces and body language exuded nothing, but scepticism.
The British have long recognised the need and importance of having an all-inclusive society. From the old Quota System through Registration of Disabled People, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to The Equality Act 2010, a person is defined as being disabled if “they have a physical or sensory impairment which has a substantial and long term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day to day activities”.
The Act also covers people who have had a disability in the past and those who have recurring and progressive health conditions. These conditions may not always have a substantial adverse effect or may not yet have a substantial adverse effect but potentially, can do so. It also covers people who have severe disfigurement. Those who have terminal illnesses are classified disabled from the day of diagnosis.
‘Long term’ under the definition means a disability or health condition that has lasted or is likely to last over twelve months. ‘Substantial’ means it can affect your performance badly or negatively. ’Day-to-day activities’ are covered under eight headings: 1. Mobility – moving or changing one’s entire body, getting around unaided or walking short distances 2. Manual dexterity – the ability to use hands and fingers with precision 3. Physical co-ordination – the balance and co-ordination of whole body movement, hand and eye co-ordination, walking and using hands at the same time 4. Continence – the ability to control bladder and/or bowel movements including the frequency and loss of control 5. Ability to lift, carry or otherwise move everyday object – carrying a kettle of water, a bag of shopping, a briefcase, moving a chair or piece of furniture and bearing weights over a reasonable period of time 6. Speech, hearing or sight – the ability speak, hear or see, including face-to-face, telephone and written communications 7. Memory or ability to concentrate, learn or understand – the ability to remember, organize thoughts, plan and execute an action, learn new things at the same speed as most other people or read straightforward text or numbers 8. Perception of the risk of physical danger – the under or overestimation of physical danger including danger to own well-being; whether a person neglects basic functions such as eating, drinking, sleeping, keeping themselves clean or behaving in a reckless way which puts themselves or others at risk.
The British definition covers a whole spectrum of disabilities and conditions including asthma, arthritis, sickle cell, general and specific learning difficulties (e.g. dyslexia and dyspraxia), mental health illnesses (e.g. bi-polar, schizophrenia, psychosis,. post traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety), epilepsy, vision and hearing impairments, HIV, alcoholism etc.
In addition to the law, there are so many general and disability-specific organisations that offer help, support and guidance to disabled people and their families and carers, the Stroke Association, National Autistic Society, Royal National Institute for The Deaf, to mention a few. There are also thousands of local organizations which offer accredited training to disabled people to qualify them to apply for, and work in mainstream jobs like everybody else. The Residential Training Colleges for disabled people offer accredited courses from accounting and bookkeeping to photography and video production.
Jobcentre Plus, part of The Department for Work and Pensions, also has specialists, Disability Employment Advisers, who in collaboration with Work Psychologists, help people with disabilities to find work if they job ready. The Disability Employment Advisers also help people with the disabilities to access training, thereby enabling them to get closer to the world of work. Finally, they help people to retain work if they become disabled or their disabilities become worse.
The Equality Act enjoins all institutions -economic, social, commercial, educational - to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities to live, work and enjoy all amenities and services like everybody else. For example, students who have dyslexia and have difficulty organizing their thoughts, are given additional time to write examination papers. The same Act requires that by January 2017, every bus or coach in the UK should be disability-friendly. Even though the Act came into force in 2010, years before its introduction, bus transport operators had been advised. That is why buses in the UK have ramps to enable wheelchair users get on them. Spaces are reserved on the buses for wheelchair users. Every station on the bus route is announced to help the blind and visually impaired know where to get off. The deaf can also tell where they are by reading the infra red station announcer.
I will leave the British scene and look at Ghana, but before I do that I will attempt to identify the various ways in which people can acquire a disability.
1. A disability can be congenital i.e. a person is born with it 2. Accidents (domestic or otherwise), disease and infections can also cause disabilities. 3. Life style choice whether advertently or not, may cause disabilities 4. The aging process – as one grows older the wear and tear of the body can cause disabilities 5. Trauma and events in people’s lives may start the process of them becoming disabled eventually 6. A long term condition can become a disability if it worsens
By the British definition and looking at the causes, any living individual can become disabled at any point in their lives.
Ghana paints a different picture.
Most Ghanaians think that disability is only physical. People with learning difficulties (which we unfortunately still refer to as mentally handicapped) for example, are disabled from carrying out ‘normal day-today activities’ just as wheelchair users are. People who have sickle cell are disabled from carrying out ‘normal day-to-day activities’ when they have crises and are in pain. These are all disabilities, even though those who have them may hate to be defined as such.
The stigma attached to people with disabilities is nauseating. I have not come across one person with epilepsy who has been to school. All the other parents would withdraw their children from that school. People who have epilepsy are treated with a lot of contempt and other people would not touch them with a barge pole. Yet epilepsy is a disorder of the nervous system which is marked by convulsive attacks and loss of consciousness and nothing more. It is not contagious. Neither is it ‘devilish’. Interestingly, most types of epilepsy are controlled by medication in the western world. Some of the expatriate investors who do business in Ghana may have epilepsy that is controlled by medication. Ghanaians are happy to confer, eat and dine with them at Labadi Pleasure Beach and Golden Tulip hotels. Their epilepsy does not stop them from living active business lives, and we are happy to shake hands with them to conclude business deals.
We equate disability with stupidity and/or inability to be like us. Are non disabled people perfect? It is not uncommon to see so many people with disabilities working in the UK and the rest of the western world. Professor Hawkings, a world-renowned scientist in the UK is a wheelchair user who communicates through assistive technology. I met a lady Programme Director from the BBC at a conference once who was profoundly deaf without speech. She communicated through sign language. Please note that I did not say ‘deaf and dumb,’ because it is derogatory. We are so dismissive of disabled people that we think they can only do basket weaving and other crafts. The great war time Prime Minister of Great Britain, Sir Winston Churchill, had bi-polar (manic depression). Gordon Brown who succeeded Tony Blair as the Leader of The Labour Party and Prime Minister of Britain was blind in one eye. The American President Roosevelt was a wheelchair user. All these people led their countries in spite of their disabilities.
Recently, our government announced that they had given 60,000 computers to school children. I am not being political here, but I wonder how many of them went to school children with disabilities. Come to think of it, would the children with disabilities not need them more than those without? Our education system is tilted heavily against those with disabilities. Educational opportunities are not equal by any stretch of the imagination. Disabled children from poor family backgrounds are less likely to have any education. The majority of them never have partners until they depart this life.
The barbaric practice where disabled children were murdered at birth may be a thing of the past (I stand for correction here), but cases of abandonment are still rife. Why do mothers abandon their disabled children at birth?
Our traditional beliefs account for a certain percentage of the problem. Spirituality, witchcraft and the numerous pastors and healers, some of them self-styled PhD holders, are all part of the problem. More importantly, there are no support networks for parents of disabled children. Neither are there any other social interventions to help the parents cope with the onerous burden of looking after their disabled child. Family, friends and neighbours who see a disabled baby are more likely to pass negative and wicked comments about the baby, than compliments and support. “W’akohwe adee huuhuuhu bi a asomasi awo noo no?”, (have you been to see the horrible thing that so-and-so has given birth to?), they may ask another friend. Our society can be ignorant and wicked in that respect.
Our successive governments do not help us either. We appear to always want to follow the example of the western world. Can we not for once initiate something that they can copy? We need to start serious public education to make people understand disabilities and cope with them better. What stops us from starting a National Disability Week? We could organise activities in every region to highlight various disabilities and end them with grand durbars of chiefs and queens, with performances by disabled people. It could be organised to coincide with The International Day of the Disabled which falls somewhere in December, I believe. What better way to start the Christmas celebrations?
As people see, read, hear about and relate to people with disabilities, society will be more welcoming of the latter. The stigma will gradually fail to gain roots, disabled people will be more confident in themselves and avail themselves of the opportunities available. Ghana will then be the winner because the greatest resource we can have as a country is human, and what better way to tap into the huge deposits lying latent in our disabled population.
We need to define disability and set up proper and workable regional and district disability focus groups to start the serious business of looking at disability with professional lenses. Some of the issues these groups will be well advised to start looking at are:
1. The total number of disabled people in each region 2. Age ranges 3. Categories/types of disability 4. Education 5. Types of support available i.e. family, circle of friends 6. Abilities 7. How disability affects them 8. Aspirations 9. Independent living or life skills 10. Family circumstances 11. A register of disabled people in their area and giving them registration cards. A better way of doing it would be to have special codes on their voters ID cards or National ID cards to show they are disabled.
Such groups should be free from government control and the majority of members should be either disabled or have a family member who is disabled.
Public education is the key. The role of these groups should be phased with the initial aim of bringing disability to the doorstep of the population. As an example, they may be charged with the responsibility for training people in evacuation procedures when there is an emergency. Once this done, they may negotiate with stadium managers in all the ten regions to give discounts to disabled people and their carers who would like to go to football matches and other events. Designated areas could be reserved for them to make evacuation easier.
Kofi Sarpong MBE Peckham, London
The writer, Kofi Sarpong-Boachie, worked as a Disability Employment Adviser with The British Civil Service until his retirement in 2010. He was awarded the MBE by The Queen in the New Years Honours in 2011 for his distinguished service in the area of disability.