Reaching out to people with disabilities in Sierra Leone

Nov 7, 2014

A double-amputee from Makeni, two hours from Freetown, is the first reported person with a disability to die from the Ebola virus disease. Bound to a wheelchair and reliant on her family to live her life, she fell ill and died following the death of her mother and her child from Ebola.

Her death was a reminder to her community that People with Disabilities (PWDs) are at a higher risk than people without a disability.

“That is the first case for the disabled people since Ebola came. So we need prayers and we need to protect ourselves, you see,” said Matilda Kadiatu Kamara, chairperson of the Polio Persons’ Development Association in Makeni.

Sierra Leone has one of the highest global rates of people with disabilities. Many of them were caught in the crossfire of a brutal civil war, which alone left 1,600 people with physical disabilities. Many others are suffering the effects of preventable diseases like polio or meningitis.  

PWDs often live on the fringe, marginalized and ostracized by the wider community. With the onset of the Ebola virus disease, they have been isolated even further.

A person who is blind or has low vision touches surfaces and people to navigate space; A person who is deaf or hard of hearing is touched by others to get their attention; A person with a physical disability is lifted out of a chair at times.

At the polio community in Makeni, 180 people have made the compound their home, a further 70 people are members. Ramps complement stairs at each of the main buildings, cooking facilities are wheelchair accessible and onsite workshops provide training and income other than begging, which is often the only resort for PWDs in Sierra Leone.

Kamara, who makes and sells necklaces with her friends, has been isolated by the outbreak, both physically and economically.  

“I sell them at the price of 20,000 but since the Ebola crisis, I don’t have customers. People marginalize us because of our disability,” she says.

With Makeni in quarantine, those not able to move around easily face an extra burden. “When the government says don’t go out, we don’t go out,” Kamara said.

But that means they rely on people, and information, coming in. With Ebola fear rampant across the country, visitors are rare.

With the help of UNDP, these vulnerable communities are having the messages delivered right to their door and in a language they can access; braille, sign language and pictures. The added benefit of this face-to-face campaign is that it is a two-way street.

“I’m so happy that I can read most of the messages,” said John S. Komoro, the Home Coordinator of the Polio Persons’ Community Association. “In radio, [it’s] just listening. They wouldn’t give us a chance to ask what we want to know about Ebola. But now we have the material in our hands and we are able to read and understand more.”

Through One Family People, a national NGO, reaching the most isolated and ostracized people is made possible. Information is power, especially during this crisis, but when no one reaches out, PWDs say they are powerless, voiceless.

“For me it’s been very, very interesting to listen,” said Edward Emmanuel, Director of One Family People. “They really want to be part of this process. Once there is language, there is a connection to what is going on. If there is no language, there is still a gap. Closing that gap through UNDP has been very successful.”


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