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Enabling the Disabled

A wheelchair at a local health clinic in Kumasi

Mr. Asa Yaw Atakora, Vice President of the Ghana Society of the Physically Disabled (GSPD) was one of the featured panelists on this week’s segment of “Know Your Rights,” which focused on the rights of disabled persons. As a disabled man himself, he shared the realities of being disabled with the listeners and criticized the lack of support available for most disabled persons in Ghana.

Since Ghana is still a developing country, disabled persons face many challenges. Inaccessibility in many (if not most) buildings and homes is common, educational institutions for the disabled are few, and social services (i.e. means of transportation, therapy, subsidizations) are inadequate. Also, with maintained roots in traditionalism, many members of Ghanaian society continue to stigmatize the disabled. For instance, disabled persons are not allowed in the Ashanti King’s palace, as it is considered a bad omen for the King to see these people first thing in the morning. Some extreme traditionalists even consider people with mental disabilities as possessed by demons who need to be exorcised or tortured to be “cured.” However, even people with more modern views continue to see persons with disabilities as helpless and useless, or victims of their own “defected” bodies. Although they may be challenged physically or mentally in some capacity, Atakora defends, “disability is not an inability.” Disabled persons are just as capable of contributing productively to society as any “abled” person.

Even though the Government of Ghana (GoG) is party to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has recently signed the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, it (like in many other developing or developed countries) has yet to prioritize safeguarding the rights of all its citizens.  Social violations of rights, especially for the vulnerable in society (including disabled persons), continue. The reason, as Atakora explains, is mostly political and a matter of “rhetoric”. Atakora criticizes that although the GoG says it is “making a better Ghana for everybody”, their focus remains on economic prosperity and development which benefits the privileged and powerful minority and ignores the needs of the unprivileged and average majority. The lack of commitment from government and the constant changes in elected and appointed officials have made securing the rights of Ghanaians (especially the vulnerable) and sustainable social services a daunting task. The disabled as Atakora, says, are “working with all odds against us.”

As is the case for many of Ghana’s social services, the GSPD is also crippled by lack of government funding. The organization’s work and influence relies solely on the external support it receives from organizations and donors such as DANIDA (Danish International Development Agency), and its occasional advocacy and access to free publicity in the media.  Atakora was very grateful to be a guest on the show and to receive the much-needed air time to talk about the rights of disabled persons (a rare topic in the politically debated climate of media in Ghana) without having to pay a publicity fee.

“We do not need your sympathy,” he insists.  Instead of pitying persons with disabilities, he requests that Ghanaians reach out and offer them their support.

The Coat of Arms of Ghana

Dr. Charlotte Abeka, a former chairperson for the United Nations and a frequent “Know Your Rights” guest, stresses the importance of putting the human being at the centre of one’s attention and action. While many governments have ensured the political and civil rights of its citizens, Abeka insists there needs to be a reorientation of economic, social and cultural rights in society to include the most vulnerable and ensure their “right to development.” When it comes to inequality and social injustices, Abeka claims, “We are all at fault. We have become so individualistic that we only care about ourselves.” In every country, the government and its institutions, media or any privileged or “abled” person, all have the larger capacity and responsibility to influence, address injustices, and make positive social changes for all, and more importantly, the vulnerable.

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