By Iain Marlow in Accra, Ghana
While many of Accra’s most well known journalists were ensconced at Ghana’s Supreme Court, broadcasting live over the past two weeks as big men in robes argued over last year’s election, two reporters from Citi FM’s Weekend Globe newspaper were out in the baking streets, interviewing a disabled homeless man who sells candy from a box on his lap as he navigates his wheelchair through traffic.
It’s not that Nana Akosua Hanson and Martin Asiedu-Dartey were missing the big story – Citi FM has its news editor reporting live on the case about alleged voting irregularities during last year’s election – it’s just that these two reporters have chosen to tackle a story that, in many ways, is much tougher to tell in a country where the masses love to devour daily political clashes but still shy away from discussing taboo issues such as societal discrimination.
Other reporters at Citi FM had noticed Osei Kweku before, as he tended to push himself through traffic in the neighbourhood of Adabraka, where the newsroom is based. In Accra, street hawkers need to be nimble – to dodge crazy traffic as they sell chilled bags of water, candy or toiletries, and to run and catch up with vehicles as passengers buy things through open windows. The only disabled people who maneuver through traffic here tend to be beggars, wheeling themselves up to cars and taxis. Many Ghanaians find this unsettling. In a country where an appointee to cabinet was recently grilled relentlessly over her past support of gay rights, there are not many high ranking politicians willing to risk popularity in order to stand up for minorities too small to make up a sizeable voting bloc – and there are few visible role models with disabilities, with the exception of one blind MP. That’s one of the reasons why this story is so powerful: It shatters stereotypes about supposedly lazy beggars as well as featuring a startlingly positive story about a person with physical disabilities.
“I began by begging for money, but after two months I found begging demeaning, so I decided to sell PK,” Osei told Martin and Akosua, referring to a popular type of gum.
This was the first story I helped out with after I arrived here as a media trainer on a six-month leave from my day job at The Globe and Mail in Toronto – “Globe-trotting,” as Bernard, the operations manager at Citi FM, called it. Pulling up an online copy of Ghana’s constitution, I pointed out to that the government is supposed to give people with disabilities special incentives when they operate, or work in, business environments. I also did a quick Google search and found the Center for Employment of Persons with Disabilities, an NGO that works to link people with physical disabilities to jobs in their communities.
As we discussed the story further, we began asking what sort of obligations the Ghanaian government has to citizens with physical disabilities. We went out and interviewed Osei, as well as Alexander Tetteh, the chief executive of the NGO. It turns out Ghana, both in its constitution and in a 2006 law on people with disabilities, owes quite a lot to people with disabilities – and delivers almost nothing.
Underfunding, combined with a lack of political will to address such a small demographic, has resulted in inertia on many aspects of the 2006 law, roughly seven years after it was passed. There are no public employment centers to link people with disabilities with jobs. Applying for access to a special fund for people with disabilities can take upwards of a year. Simple laws, such as allowing a person with crutches to the front of the line in the “tro tro” system of private minibuses in Accra, are ignored and not enforced by police. Osei Kweku had many rights, but it turns out he was unaware of them, in part because so few with disabilities are actually aware of their rights but also because almost none of them are actually enforced (or advertised). Perhaps, with some help, he could finally save up enough to set up an actual stand or shop, where he wouldn’t have to dodge Accra’s crazy drivers all day in a wheelchair – where he fears he might get hit by a vehicle with failing breaks (which is easy to imagine here).
Akosua wrote all of this up into a 1,500-word story for the Weekend Globe. We then discussed headlines and photo layout. including the inclusion of a large “Factbox” with excerpts from the Ghanaian constitution and the Persons with Disability Act, and then splashed it on the front page of the paper (after a few rounds of edits). The story told Osei’s inspirational story but also linked his predicament back to a government that should be doing more. As Akosua points out in her piece, how many less beggars would be on the streets if the government was properly funding the programs it was meant to, and making Ghana’s disabled citizens aware of the services available to them?
International non-governmental organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have identified Ghana’s atrocious handling of citizens with mental disabilities as a major human rights issue for this stable West African democracy. But people with physical disabilities, who confront poor infrastructure here already, face additional hurdles because of government inaction with regard to strong laws already in place. Ghana has a long list of challenges to confront, to be sure. But fresh new revenues flowing in from offshore oil discoveries are shortening the list of possible excuses for drastic underfunding of basic services that should be delivered to vulnerable Ghanaians, who could in turn be contributing more meaningfully to their society.
Human rights stories from reporters such as Akosua and Martin, in a progressive paper like the Weekend Globe that is willing to put politics on the inside and give social issues prominence on the front page, could very well help speed that process along.