Disabled in Sierra Leone prove disability is not inability
FAO helps war-disabled and others improve their livelihoods and play their part in community development
3 December 2004, Rome -- In Sierra Leone, where ten years of hostilities marked by the maiming of civilians have compounded the problem of disabilities, an FAO project is providing rural disabled persons with technical and business skills to contribute to their households' welfare and to the development of their communities.
So far, 60 disabled persons have been trained in blacksmithing, food processing and other income-generating skills. This opens the way for them to make a good living and demonstrates that the disabled can make important contributions to their families and communities -- a message being stressed by FAO on the International Day of Disabled Persons.
Proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1992, the International Day of Disabled Persons is observed every year on 3 December to promote awareness and understanding of disability issues. It also seeks to increase awareness of the gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.
A role to play
With initial start-up capital and inputs provided by FAO, four training and production centres have been established in Bo, Bonthe, Tonkolili and Port Loko Districts. The centres are now fully owned and managed by the disabled with support from community elders. Advisory services are provided by government extension agents from the Ministries of Agriculture, Social Welfare, Health and Education.
"The project has given the disabled recognition within their communities," says Sam Allie, national project coordinator. "The community can see that they are able to contribute and are not just a burden on their families. And the disabled now have hope that they have a role to play and can be accepted."
Blacksmithing was selected as a priority subject for training not only because it is an activity that can be readily adopted by the disabled, but also because of its importance in Sierra Leonean society. As grassroots artisans, blacksmiths produce and repair farm implements and other tools. In this way they play a vital role in rural areas.
"Within the culture of Sierra Leone, blacksmiths are a source of hope and inspiration in rural communities because they help to make farming possible," Allie explains.
'A drop in the ocean'
With some estimates putting the total number of disabled people in Sierra Leone at 250 000, or around 4 percent of the total population, Allie acknowledges that this project represents only a very modest start. "Given the enormity of the problem, this is like a drop in the ocean," he says.
But the drop is beginning to have a ripple effect. Already, the initial 60 trainees have begun training fellow disabled community members in blacksmithing and other activities. To assist them, FAO has produced a training manual on agro-based income-generating activities for handicapped rural persons.
Plans are also under way to scale up these activities over the next six months to reach a larger number of the disabled, but additional funds will be needed to support an expansion based on the pilot activities, says Allie.
He notes that a national census to begin this month will include, for the first time, specific questions related to disabilities and will give a much better picture of the extent of the problem. Once more accurate statistics are available, based on the census findings, FAO hopes to set up a database on disabilities in the country to know who the disabled are and where they are located in order to better address their needs.
The project has been implemented in collaboration with the Ministries of Agriculture and Social Welfare and a local non-governmental organization, Movement for Assistance and Promotion of Rural Communities Development (MAPCO). It has also generated interest in supporting skills training of the handicapped among other agencies, such as Handicap International, which provided wheelchairs and prosthetics to project participants.
Voluntary partnership for disabled children
In June 2004, moved by the plight and overwhelming numbers of the handicapped children they saw during the hand-over ceremony of the FAO-built blacksmithing and micro-enterprise centre in the town of Lunsar, Port Loko District, FAO staff in Sierra Leone initiated a pilot voluntary partnership project - the "Invest to Save Disabled Children Fund". They presented it to the United Nations Country Team, who formed a task force to get the initiative started.
An estimated 400 disabled persons live in Lunsar, of which around 200 are school-age children, but only 10 to 15 percent of these children are in school, according to Allie. "We felt something had to be done to bring these children into the normal school system," he said.
For the disabled in Lunsar, the lack of education is compounded by the lack of any local or international organization to render essential services, the non-existence of structurally accessible health and educational facilities, and the prevailing poverty that makes disabled children's school attendance unaffordable by most families.
"Teachers need to be trained in working with disabled children and curricula developed that respond to their needs; schools need ramps or other structural modifications to make them accessible to disabled students, and parents need help with school fees and other charges," said Allie. "The fund will address these issues and improve the quality of life of disabled children and their families."
The voluntary partnership initiative, which will be officially launched soon, forges close collaboration between UN agency staff, NGOs, government institutions, local organizations and, most importantly, the community members themselves. It aims to include children with disabilities in mainstream development programmes and ensure sustainable livelihoods for their families through education and training, health care, counselling and income-generating activities.
Information Officer, FAO
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