Video and Text by Robin Pierro
Nortey Quaynor sits at his station in Accra’s United Biscuits factory. His hands move swiftly sealing bags of freshly baked cookies with Barack Obama’s face pressed into them. Large machines fill the warehouse with a deafening drone while the sweet aroma of fresh baking wafts in the air. Nortey remains undistracted by the hundreds of people working around him. It’s his seventh month at the biscuit factory and the other workers no longer look at him like he’s different.
Nortey has lived with autism for 28 years, and for the first time in his life, he has a job. He doesn’t know exactly who President Obama is, but he does understand that he has a task to do: seal biscuit packages. His caregiver, Abiku Grant, who works for the Autistic Awareness Care and Training Centre (AACT) in Accra, stands off to the side exhibiting a proud grin.
AACT is the only centre in Ghana that works specifically with autistic people, and the high demand for support only allows them to care for people up to 25 years old.
Grant says the training program at the biscuit factory was established to teach autistic people skills they can use to find work once they leave the centre. However, setting the program up wasn’t easy.
“There is so much stigma surrounding autism and disabilities in Ghana, people look at them and think that they are mad,” says Grant. “They don’t think they can be taught the skills to work.”
In light of April being autism awareness month, a conference was recently held in Accra to bring together the West African autism community for the first time.
Dr. Emmanuel Badoe, Director of the Neurology Developmental Clinic at the Korle Bu teaching hospital in Accra, was a presenter at the conference. He says there are no statistics on how many people have autism in West Africa and there are only a handful of professionals who work with developmental disorders in the region. Beyond that, he notes a lack of information for Ghanaian families about autism; many people don’t even know the disorder exists.
This lack of public awareness has made it difficult for people with autism to be accepted into regular society, let alone gain employment.
“This is a real way forward,” says Dr. Emmanuel Badoe, speaking about the work program. “People with disabilities need to be integrated back into society. This is a great thing for our country.”
Nortey was the first member of AACT to be placed in the biscuit factory, where six other autistic men and women are also employed. Nortey works in a spaghetti factory too, and AACT is hoping more companies open their doors to autistic workers.
Thorugh his work, Nortey is slowly changing the perception of autism in Ghana. When his mother, Serwah Quaynor, founded AACT it was out of a need that was not being filled by other facilities. She knew Nortey could not be the only one with autism in Ghana and opened the centre, but never expected to get to a point where her son could be employed.
“People are finally realizing what autism is,” says Quaynor. “Now the workers in the factories look at Nortey like he is a normal person.”
Nortey will continue to do his part in changing the public view towards people with autism, one Obama biscuit package at a time. Yes he can.