This month is the anniversary of the Braille, the revolution that has transformed the lives of millions of blind people around the world. However, in Sierra Leone, not many unsighted have access to what is clearly a luxury to the hundreds if not thousands of that category of our less privileged compatriots.
An unsighted friend of mine, we call him Supersonic, completed his Bachelor’s degree at Fourah Bay College and proceeded to read for a law degree. The brilliant and studious fellow could not complete his course because there were no law books available in Braille. Decades after this redeeming invention of mankind it still remains a dream for many in this part of the world. Owing to the lack of access to modern day technology, Supersonic could also not carry out research on the Internet because of his condition.
And it is not just at the tertiary level that books in Braille are inaccessible. Even at the primary school level text books are not available for the blind pupils. They have to compete with their sighted colleagues on the latter’s own turf. So I wonder what the much-talked-about free primary education for all is all about when it does not take the situation of the blind into consideration.
But thanks to his overseas partners, Supersonic has set up an educational centre for the blind where they are taught the use of the computer. And with help from partner organisations, they now have some Braille-printing machine.
From the lower to the top level of society, we seem to treat all categories of disabled with contempt at best; sometimes we even scorn them. It is a societal stupidity. Our offices are not disabled-friendly; nor is our transport system. How about our public buildings which are built without the foggiest thought of let alone consideration for the disabled even in this day and age of so much awareness about disability issues and sensitivities.
Talking about which brings me to my birthday on Christmas Day 2008; probably my best spent in a very long time. I had been invited by the Walpoleans if you know them. They are a group of disabled people squatting in a disused unfinished house on Walpole Street around Cotton Tree. By a court order, they should have been evicted from the privately owned building. This same group of more than 150 young men and women and children were some two years ago kicked out of what they called home at the Central Bus Park.
For the third time I was with them at the address they do not want to be at but are there willy-nilly. They sleep on the bare floor and have been for nearly two years. Some others sleep on the street in front of the multiple-story building. These highly talented young wheelchair-bound young men and women beg on the streets during the day or forage for food. Assisted by Hadiatou Diallo, a Guinean who has left her home to come live with these abandoned people in their rundown squatter, and Emmanuel Edward Okoh a Beninois doing the same, the Walpoleans had organised a get-together on Christmas day to mark the end of the year in a mood they are barely in – in happiness. They can only dream about it.
Having spent four hours with them, I was able to appreciate somewhat and somehow the misconception belying the notion that they are a bunch of troublesome people. They are not! They sometimes behave the way they do because we clearly and demonstrably treat them scornfully and they feel the best way of making us feel they are as relevant as everyone else is by putting up a show. For example, it is common knowledge, however condemnable, that at that time of year people cordon off streets for their pleasure. Drivers would only make a detour. However while the Walpoleans did just that because they had their musical set and were serving food on the open street, some drivers insulted them; demanding they be allowed a thoroughfare. This is simply because they are disabled. There can be no other reason.
The Walpoleans, like other disabled persons our society has relegated to subhuman status, have talent. I almost used my hankie when a group of them put up a spectacle to showcase their musical genius. Their rendition of an old “I Wish” song was mesmerising. Their tone and the accompanying tune could icicle tears. Their musical chair competition would hypnotise you.
What all of this does is to bring humanity to the fore of the inhumane. To make us as Sierra Leoneans realise that there is more to life than our superiority about ourselves over others simply because of their being what they are not responsible for.
This should make it a matter of urgency the passing of the Disability Act by Parliament and not for MPs to clamour and cut short their holiday through SMSes just to award Muammar Ghadaffi HONARARY MPship probably in anticipation of some goodies from him. These disabled could be our brothers or sisters or children or even parents of future senior public officials. Allowing them to hold this deep-seated anger against us and their children growing up in it can only anger them more. Or do our politicians only care about these people when elections are around the corner when they have equal right as we do – to vote – and treat them as such?
Please let someone care for the disabled beyond just paying lip service. And it all begins from everyone but ultimately led by Government. And that should start NOW. Before the Walpoleans are evicted, let the Ministry of Social Welfare, which to me is the MOST USELESS and it would appear does not exist, do something now. By Umaru Fofana