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Paper versus practice: Disability rights in Ghana

Abu Mohammed, 28, makes his living begging in traffic in Ghana's capital city.
Photo by Jessica McDiarmid.

By Jessica McDiarmid

The traffic comes to a stop along a busy thoroughfare that leads into central Accra.

In a flurry of deft movements, several limbless men vault onto scooter boards and launch themselves into the fray, weaving between vehicles, tapping on windows and holding out their hands.

From the inside of a vehicle, many of them are so low to the ground that they're invisible unless they're at your window.

At an intersection closer to the city centre, a young child is pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair from car window to car window, holding out her hand to commuters and pointing at the old woman. Nearby, a boy leads an old blind man through the traffic, begging.

They are some of Ghana's estimated 2.5 million people who are living with a disability. While the Ghana Persons with Disability Act passed in 2006 to enshrine the rights of people with disabilities in the country, few of those laws have been realized.

So, in a country with little in the way of a government-sponsored social welfare net, begging in traffic is the only means to stay alive for some of those living with a disability.

Abu Mohammed is 28 years old. He has a wife and two young children. He recently returned from competing in international football in Nigeria; he is captain of Ghana's national team for people with physical disabilities.

Despite his prowess as a "scooter-soccer" player, six days a week, eight hours a day, you'll find Mohammed out in the traffic, begging for money to cover his rent, feed his family, and send his children to school.

Smiling shyly under a faded camouflage-print hat, Mohammed arranges his immobile legs on the scooter, crossing them one over the other. He uses mismatched flip-flops hooked on his fingers to protect his hands as he pushes himself over the concrete.

On a good day, Mohammed will make about $7 a day; slower days, it's more like $3 or $4.

Mohammed wasn't born with a disability. He fell ill at the age of three and was never able to walk again.

"My parents told me it was a headache and later it affected my whole body," says Mohammed through a translator. "Since then I have never been able to walk."

As a person with a disability, Mohammed didn't attend school, though, unlike some, his parents continued to care for him.

When he was 12, they were killed in a car crash. Mohammed was sent to live with a relative but, suffering from maltreatment, he began to make his own way on the streets. He's been there, for the most part, ever since.

The legislation guarantees people with disabilities access to public buildings, healthcare, education and employment opportunities. It also establishes a national body to ensure compliance and makes it an offence to discriminate against people with disabilities.

On paper, it's "nearly perfect," says Mary Tobbin, the program manager for inclusion with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), an international organization that champions rights of people with disabilities in Ghana.

"(But) I can tell you the implementation is woefully, extremely poor," she says.

The act has a 10-year window to allow for time to implement it, but four years after its passage, little is progressing. A big part of the problem, says Tobbin, is that no one is taking responsibility.

For example, the law requires that all children with a disability receive free education that meets their particular needs.

"Who is checking that they're getting it?" asks Tobbin. "There is a huge gap hanging around who ensures that the law is implemented."

Tobbin blames a lack of resources, stemming from a lack of political will.

"The government's priority is simply not there."

The National Council on Persons with Disability was established by the 2006 legislation, tasked with implementing it.

Now, in late 2010, the council is about a year old, and still very much "finding its feet," says Executive Secretary Duut Bonchel Abdulai.

He adds that there are many projects in the pipeline, including a strategic plan, accessibility standards and a communication strategy.

A lack of money, however, is a big challenge, he says, particularly because the council was formed after current budget allocations were already complete.

Abdulai says discrimination still makes it extremely difficult for people with disabilities to find work and access services.

"People with disabilities in Ghana face discrimination and this is a result of the fact that we still don't understand what disability is," says Abdulai. "Disability knows no bounds. In a split second, you can become a person with disability.”

Back in the traffic, Mohammed says he's seen people killed by vehicles; he's lost friends to accidents on the road. He doesn't want to be here but he has never been able to find a job. What he would like is to have a shop, where he could sit and sell goods, and be around his family.

"We've been waiting for the government or an NGO to come to our aid," says Mohammed. "But if we just waited, we'd die of hunger."

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