Fragile states, Governance

#NowIsTheTime – our work on disability inclusion

Coffey Project Manager, Donal Mageean, is part of our team at the Global Disability Summit today. 

The summit is being jointly hosted by DFID, the Government of Kenya and the International Disability Alliance, and is aiming to galvanise the global effort to address disability inclusion in the poorest countries in the world and act as the start point for major change on this neglected issue. 

While working on the Pay No Bribe programme in Sierra Leone, Donal worked extensively on making sure the programme was as accessible for disabled people as able-bodied. He's written this blog to shed a little more light on the work and his own experiences in Sierra Leone.
It is fast approaching two years since I first landed in Sierra Leone. I had started a new job and I was excited for the challenges that lay ahead. I had never deployed long term and had spent the majority of my life on either side of the Irish Sea, so the prospect of managing an anti-corruption programme in Sierra Leone was a challenging one – but I’d faced challenges before, and I was convinced I could take on this one. I was confident that my life experience and my research of Sierra Leone would stand me in good stead for the challenge that lay ahead – but nothing can really prepare you for stepping off the plane at Lungi Airport.

A troubled past
Growing up on the outskirts of Belfast as a millennial, I would hear stories of discrimination and conflict. Luckily for my family, the conflict had stayed off our doorstep and I had no exposure to the horrors that had engulfed the island for almost two centuries. At the time of my deployment, Sierra Leone was still in recovery from the civil war of 1991-2002 and the 2014 Ebola epidemic. More than 50,000 lives were lost in the conflict and almost 4,000 people had died from the Ebola outbreak. While the Troubles were a far cry from the Sierra Leone Civil War, however I naively drew comparisons and, like my childhood, I did not expect to witness conflict and epidemic on my doorstep.

What I did witness, however, was their legacy. I had meetings scheduled for my first day in Freetown and, as we drove to the offices, I couldn’t help but be struck by the numbers of people on crutches, wheelchairs or those who were immobile on the pavement. Some were alone, others had families, who had similar disabilities or physical challenges. My initial thought was how did I not know about this – I was aware that there had been survivors from the conflict and Ebola outbreak, however my experience of survivors was those who had support, not citizens cast out at the side of the road. Forgotten survivors.
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The Cotton Tree
I had spent the end of my teens in and out of orthopaedic surgery – trying to claw back a football career that I had hoped would last many years. I spent countless hours working with the physiotherapist in an attempt to make my knee ready for competitive sports. Given that I had torn my ACL twice, and I had little to no cartridge in my left knee, the chances of me competing at a high level again, however, were slim. This had hit me hard, and I ignored the continuous messages of my family that I still had my health, and most importantly I could walk, cycle and even run post-surgery. Although I still have a recurring niggle, and a knee that tends to click now and again, I have mobility and a full range of motion. I’m also back playing competitive sports, much to the distain of my mother and surgeon. After my first week in Freetown, I really did realise how lucky I was to have had an injury that was treated and that didn’t leave me with enduring impairment.

One of the programmes I was also managing required me to travel across town to High Court on Siaka Stevens Street. On the journey, we drove past the Cotton Tree, a historic symbol of Freetown. After a discussion with my driver, (and the translation of my colleague from my thick Northern Irish accent) he told me that the significance of the Cotton Tree dated back to 1792, when a group of former African American slaves, who had gained their freedom by fighting for the British during the American War of Independence, settled the site as modern Freetown. It is said that under the Cotton Tree, the settlers first prayed and started their lives as free people.

As the driver was describing the history, my eyes were fixed on the sight around the tree. Dozens of people were gathered around the tree, all of whom had some form of disability. The men and women of a similar age to me who were missing limbs stood out to me – and the children, who were barely clothed, hungry and in need of food or money to support their families. Some had crutches but few had wheelchairs. I later learned that they would gather at the tree every day to pray and to hopefully catch the eye of a government minister – someone who might notice their plight and be in a position to help direct to them to assistance.

In society
I soon began to find my feet in Freetown. I became accustomed to the heat and humidity, to the local cuisine and as accustomed as I could be to the traffic and mosquitos. The position of disabled Sierra Leoneans was something I couldn’t get accustomed to, though, and I often spoke with various members of the international and local community on the rights of the disabled. Sierra Leone on its own does not have the capacity nor resources available to care for those most in need. Indeed, the health care system is still recovering from the stresses of Ebola and extreme events like the Regent mudslide in August 2017, where hundreds lost their lives.

Ingrained societal conventions and attitudes are also a major barrier to assisting disabled people in Sierra Leone. Some are considered to be cursed – to be witches or practitioners of black magic – who will in turn curse you and your family. They are stereotyped and discriminated against on the basis of their disabilities and nothing else.

Pay No Bribe
This experience and awareness of the position of disabled people in Sierra Leone certainly affected my mindset on my programme management in-country. The key programme I’ve been working on in Sierra Leone is Pay No Bribe, an innovative DFID-funded, four-year platform (2014-2018) that makes it easier for people to report corruption. Although PNB is not a disability support programme, as implementers we have to ensure that we make sure it is as accessible for disabled people and groups as it is for able-bodied people – that they are able to understand the content and to report it as much as anyone else is. In recent years DFID has been focusing heavily on the rights of disabled people. The department’s guidance, requirements and ambition provide the structures and frameworks that allow us, as programme implementers, to incorporate approaches to disability into our work and to ‘leave no one behind’.

Using the influence of our civil society partners, we have embarked on a nationwide campaign to make PNB accessible to those with different disabilities. For people with complete or partial hearing loss, we’re incorporating sign language at events, and using cartoons and visual information, education and communication materials. For blind or partially sighted people, we’re using radio broadcasts and memorable jingles and songs. And for people with physical disabilities we’re choosing disability friendly venues and establishing memoranda of understanding with leadership structures or unions. Mohammed Abdulai Kabbah is a Public Education Assistant on PNB, focusing heavily on outreach and the ‘Meet the School’ campaign, which sensitises children on the Education Service Charter and on accessing PNB reporting platform. He is also visually impaired and is involved with many aspects of disability access on the programme, regularly facilitating signed workshops at the National School for the Deaf on PNB outreach.

PNB is not a programme that provides physiotherapy treatment or wheelchairs or hearing enhancements, but it is a programme that focuses on transparency and fairness for all Sierra Leoneans – including those with disabilities. It is our professional duty to work with Anti-Corruption Commission to ensure that the Health Ministry is held to account for the fair treatment of people with disabilities, but it is also our personal duty as human beings to support the forgotten survivors in Sierra Leone.