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Why Africa's physically challenged remain 'invisible'

December 2, 2022

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.

 Participants wait for a moment to start during the annual "Desert Wheelchair Race" organized by Kenyan NGO Northern Nomadic Disabled Persons Organization (NONDO)
Some people view those living with disabilities as having been cursedImage: Frederik Lernryd/AFP/Getty Images

Yaw Ofori-Debra, a Ghanaian, became blind at age 9 after developing cataracts, a gray area in the eye's lens that leads to decreased vision. At the time, he 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 wasn't until he enrolled in a school for 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. He is now the president of the Ghana Federation of Disability Organizations.

"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 hot spots has also increased the number of people living with disabilities on the continent.

A child with a disability sits with a volunteer
Children born with learning difficulties in Africa have a higher chance of dropping out from school at an early ageImage: Oleksandr Rupeta/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Stigma remains rife

But not many people living with disabilities in Africa can get an educationlike Ofori-Debra. As a result, the less fortunate often end up on the streets begging for food and money to take care of their essential needs.

"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," said Ofori-Debra.

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 has also enacted a Persons with Disabilities Act which, among others, promotes the education and welfare of disabled people. But stigma remains high, said Robert Nkwangu, the executive secretary of the Uganda National Association of the Deaf, which does advocacy and policy influence for its members.

In an interview with DW, Nkwangu said the stigma begins at the family level, where children with hearing difficulties are not a priority regarding education and providing other life skills.

"In some families and society in general, people call us derogatory or abusive names like Kasiru, which means someone stupid in the Luganda language," said Nkwangu.

The Ghana amputee football team

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," he said.

According to a study by the United Nations 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.

Albino children dressed in blue take a break in a recreational hall
Persons born with albinism often face stigma and other mythsImage: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

Disabled children left behind

Based on its field studies in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia, the African Child Policy Forum 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 Overseas 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," she said.

But in a ray of hope, Nigeria's security service is now planning to set up disability duty desks specifically designed to handle cases of persons with disabilities. 

Lack of infrastructure for the disabled

"Many public offices are located in high buildings and are inaccessible to those living with physical challenges, especially those who use wheelchairs and crutches," said Ofori-Debra.

"Also, people with disabilities don't get the attention they deserve when they want to cross roads during rush hours when there's a heavy traffic jam."

Some have been knocked down by speeding motorists who don't realize that some pedestrians could have hearing impairments, he added.

For many of Africa's people with disabilities, assistive devices like hearing aids, prosthetic devices and wheelchairs are either not available or unaffordable. That's why Voluntary Service Overseas and other advocates for people with disabilities have been searching for ways to foster their inclusion in all aspects of social life.

"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," said Mwangi.

 A wheelchair basketball player warms up on a basketball court,
People with physical challenges can engage in all aspects of life, including sportsImage: Florent Vergnes/AFP

Call to embrace those living with disabilities

Many potential employers are often hesitant to hire people with disabilities. However, said 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," he said.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu