People with disabilities have a contribution to make – we need to include their voices

Abdul-Rahman Edward Koroma: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 25 May 2024:

Dozens and dozens. That’s how many stairs you have to climb up a grand spiral staircase inside State House in Freetown, if you wish to reach the office of President Retired Brigadier Dr. Julius Maada Bio and his advisors, for a meeting. There is an elevator, but it is often out of service.

16% – According to the World Health Organization, that’s the percentage of people across the world who are living with a significant disability. Although the most recent figures we have from a census way back in 2015 state that only around 1.3% of the population lives with disability in Sierra Leone, there is good reason to believe this is a massive undercount.

Given that the vast majority of people with disabilities live in the Global South, it is far more likely that the percentage of people with disabilities in Sierra Leone is at least as much as the global average of 16%, if not higher.

That means that one out of every six Sierra Leoneans would likely struggle to climb that staircase to reach the President’s office, should they ever have the opportunity.

In the past, I did not care about numbers like this. But on October 11, 2015, everything changed for me. On that day, a road accident left me paralyzed from the neck down. I was confined to a wheelchair and lost my job. I learned first-hand that disability can be depressing, isolating, daunting and challenging when society is not set up to support persons with disabilities.

People with disabilities have hopes and dreams, just like everyone else. We have talents and skills, and plenty to offer our communities, and our country.  We want jobs, rather than having to beg for charity. We want to make a difference. However, without proper support and policies for accessibility and inclusion we can’t achieve our dreams; we can’t make our contribution.

Over the years I was able to improve my mobility and I can now get around with a wheelchair and cover short distances on crutches. Determined to make a contribution, I started an organization called C-SEED SL – Centre for Socio-Economic Empowerment and Development, Sierra Leone, where we support the development and inclusion of people with disabilities in every aspect of life.

Through this work, I learned that although Sierra Leone ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) through the 2011 Persons with Disabilities Act, implementation remains woefully inadequate. That Act allowed for the establishment of a Disability Commission – but the Commission has become politicized, bogged down in party-political disputes rather than focusing on improving the lives of people with disabilities.

A review of the Act, coordinated by the Minister of Social Welfare, has not managed to obtain sufficient input from the disability community in Sierra Leone.

The entire review process has stalled. We are living with the unfortunate results, which are mirrored across Africa and the globe: disabled people are often excluded from school and overlooked for jobs. As a result we have higher rates of unemployment and poverty, and we struggle to obtain accessible housing. While people with disabilities are everywhere in plain sight, we are also invisible.

The road to improvement starts with better political representation. The current Parliament of the Second Republic of Sierra Leone comprises 149 members. Not a single parliamentarian champions the rights of persons living with disabilities. Similarly, cabinet appointments by the President lack any representation from the disabled community.

We already have a successful model for addressing representation.  

The Gender Empowerment Act of 2021 reserved 30 percent of seats for female candidates in parliamentary elections and significantly increased women’s representation in political and public sectors. Women now make up 28 percent of the current parliament.

We need a similar approach to ensure fair representation for disabled people in Parliament, cabinet, and all government and public bodies. We could start by reviewing the Disability Act of 2011 to include the requirement that every political party and every public body reserves a fair proportion – say 10% – of its membership for disabled representatives.

I have no doubt that such representation would have a meaningful impact on a few levels. One level of impact would be symbolic – for people with disabilities it would mean we could see someone like us, in the corridors of power. That would be a source of hope, and pride. It would show non-disabled people that we have a valuable contribution to make, and it would make us feel seen. This would have a huge, positive impact on our mental health.

But another level of impact would be practical. As I learned after my accident, it is only once you have to live with a disability and deal with the endless challenges people with disabilities face every single day, that you really understand these challenges and how best to address them. It is only when it’s your own daily life and livelihood at stake that you really, passionately care about resolving these problems.

We desperately need that understanding and that passion in Parliament and other bodies, to ensure that all of our laws and policies take the needs of disabled people into account. We need that perspective, so that we no longer construct public buildings in such a way that they are inaccessible to one in every six citizens.

If you do not live with a disability, please understand that this could change at any time: through aging, illness, or accident, as it did for me back in 2015. Please consider that it is not only in the interests of people currently living with disabilities that we should have fair representation. It is in your interests too. Please join us in calling for a timely review of the Disability Act, in order to make provision for such representation as soon as possible.

100% – That’s the percentage of people with disabilities who want to be included in meaningful participation in every aspect of our society. Help us make it happen. 

About the author

Abdul-Rahman Edward Koroma is a disability activist and the Country Director at the Centre for Social Economic Empowerment and Development in Sierra Leone.


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