Improvements at high cost

People with disabilities, all over the world, but especially if they live in poor third world countries, are often regarded as powerless victims of society. Their empowerment by the international community is regarded as one of the most urgent and most self-evident development objectives. According to NAI guest researcher Diana Szanto, the example of Sierra Leone shows that it is possible to look at disabled people in Africa in a different way.

In Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, polio survivors live in self established and self-managed collective homes which cater for most of the social and economic needs of the inhabitants. The most urgent problems for people living in the polio squats are related to poverty, insecurity of shelter and ineffective social services.

– The conditions of living in the polio homes are difficult. The hygienic conditions are deplorable and it is almost indecent to speak about accessibility in buildings where physically impaired people have to climb daily long steep stairs to access their rooms, says Diana Szanto.

The membership of these collective homes encompasses a big number of non-disabled persons as well, so it is possible to say that within these places around 20% of disabled people integrate 80% of non-disabled persons: wives, children, family members, helpers, young boys - known as pushers, responsible for pushing the wheelchairs of the beggars. The economic situation of the squat people is not necessary worse than for others living in poor neighborhoods, thanks to the capacity of the disabled communities to generate revenue, not only by begging but also by producing and selling different things, as well as by proposing maintenance work to the neighbors..

– Today, these communities do not only have to face poverty, but also harassment on behalf of public authorities, concerned to upgrade the image of Freetown as a modern capital, says Diana Szanto.

Despite of this, local and international NGOs continue focus their efforts on awareness raising, aiming to educate ordinary people, supposed to have “a wrong conception of disability”. Instead they should, according to Diana Szanto, address obvious human right abuses, like forceful eviction of the squats, involving the use of teargas against disabled people, illegal arrests and inhuman treatment of disabled suspects by the police, incidents that Diana Szanto witnessed at several occasions.  

In the face of such structural threats the international community remains silent, although indirectly their advocacy work has helped the targeted communities fight back the authorities, by formulating their complaints as “people with disability” rather than squatters. Thanks to continuous lobbying on behalf of international NGOs and local disability organizations, disability has become a hot issue and an ineluctable argument in the political landscape. This advocacy work has successfully resulted in Sierra Leone’s signing on to international agreements and later also passing a national bill recognizing the rights of disabled people. This has meant important improvements, but the success has a high price.

– This strategy does not allow disabled squatters to mobilize for rights that are not about disability, as right for education, for health care, public services – basic human rights. However, in Freetown at least half of the urban population lacks those rights. The international disability discourse thus weakens their collective fight instead of strengthening them. This is how empowerment becomes disempowering, says Diana Szanto.

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