It is estimated that 450,000 disabled people are living in Sierra Leone. This includes the blind, deaf, people with polio, and the war wounded and amputees. At present, the government does not provide anything specifically for people living with disabilities. This story profiles disabled street beggars, and takes a closer look at their daily struggle, which includes squatting in an abandoned building without water, electricity, toilets, or beds.
The day after this cover story ran on the disabled, parliament discussed disability issues. Honorable Julius Cuffie, who was interviewed for the story, addressed the many challenges the disabled are facing, referencing a statistic and quote from this piece.
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Government Neglects Disabled
By Jennifer Hollett and Abu Bakarr Munu, Premier News, Freetown, Sierra Leone
It is estimated that 450,000 disabled people are living in Sierra Leone. This includes the blind, deaf, people with polio, and the war wounded and amputees. At present, the government does not provide anything specifically for people living with disabilities.
Many physically disabled people can be found begging in the streets of Freetown. “Being disabled in Sierra Leone means that you have been reduced to being the poorest of the poor,” states Patrick James Taylor, Program Development Officer with Disability Awareness Action Group (DAAG) and the Public Relations Officer with Sierra Leone Union of Polio Persons (SLUPP).
A group of disabled teenagers wheel their way up and down Wilkinson Road on a daily basis. The crew is made up of young boys in wheelchairs and their friends who are caretakers. They go by the name of “Young Blood.”
They travel to Western Freetown to beg for money and often hold on to trucks and cars passing by to gain speed. “That is a dangerous game,” explains Dennis Morison of “Young Blood”, who walks with crutches, but has a condition that is undiagnosed. Morison says it helps them move fast and cover far distances that can be difficult for the disabled.
The group provides a sense of community for the youths who are isolated from Sierra Leone society. “We come together because we feel protected and safe,” says Morison.
“Most of them feel they are marginalized from their family. So they take to the street, form a community, where they feel accepted,” says Taylor.
The boys say they share the money they collect, which is sometimes only Le 2,000 each a day. They say it is only enough to buy food and help them scrape by. “We want to go back to school. We don’t even have a place to stay,” says Morison.
Memuna Conteh is a single mother of two from Kamalo village. Her niece pushes her around in a wheelchair at the NP petrol station at Congo Cross so she can beg for change. Her condition is also undiagnosed. She was born with the ability to walk, but at the age of four became disabled. “I’m poor, begging is my only source of income,” she says. Conteh begs on her own because she says the boys sometimes cheat her out of money.
The boys and Conteh currently squat at a three story house on Walpole Street. In a bid to find out more about the living conditions, Premier News visited the home. The colonial style brick building has no windows or doors, and is in a dilapidated state. There is no water, electricity, toilets, or beds. The squatters have created an organization for themselves called the United Disabled Organization Sierra Leone.
The group’s spokesperson, Abubarkar Sidique, says 75 disabled youth have been living here since December 4, 2007. Among this group there are about 15 women, some with children. There are a range of disabilities in the house, including the blind, people with polio, the war
wounded, and many undiagnosed cases. The house brings together people from all over the country who have come to Freetown in search of money. Many are from poor families who were unable to support them, some shunned because of their disability.
“I am from a very poor family and my father is now an old man, whose condition is even worse than mine,” explains Sidique on crutches. “So as a result, I am not expecting anything from him.”
Prior to squatting, some members of the group were living on the streets of Freetown. The top floor of the Walpole building houses friends and relatives who help take care of the disabled.
“There is no support for all of us here. We have to hike and find a living for ourselves,” says Sidique. He says they receive nothing from the government, or any NGOs, with the exception of wheelchairs from the Wheelchair Foundation. The disabled youth told Premier News that their main problem is shelter, food, and medical attention.
Honorable Julius Cuffie, Member of Parliament for Constituency 109 Brookfields, Dworzark, and Congo Market, is the first disabled MP in the history of the country. He walks with a limp due to polio. His victory has provided hope for the disabled in Sierra Leone. Taylor says it’s an “eye opener” for the country.
After the election, Cuffie says he visited a variety of disabled groups and organizations in Freetown. The main complaint was lack of government funding. He also visited the Walpole building. Despite the illegal occupation, Cuffie talked to the police and asked them not to disturb the youth. Cuffie says he also offered to find the youth homes with institutions, but they weren’t interested. They wanted a lot on their own, with their friends. He is still exploring options for the group.
Cuffie’s main focus as a newly elected Member of Parliament is to lobby on behalf of the disabled. “I intend to push the Persons with Disabilities Act,” he told Premier News.
Key provisions of the act include criminalizing discrimination on the grounds of disability, legally defining the term disability, providing a Disability Rights Commission, and improving accessibility for the disabled in public and private institutions.
Uneducated disabled people like Conteh spend their days begging for handouts. Conteh says she can’t be concerned about the image this presents because she has no other option. “I am not skilled. I don’t know anything but I will take up an offer in anything,” she says.
Taylor of DAAG says that it is even difficult for educated and qualified disabled people to get jobs. “Most of us are graduates … but we find it very difficult to find employment because of discrimination.” DAGG and SLUPP are advocating on behalf of the diverse disabled community in the country. Taylor hopes legislation will help improve their lives.