Thursday, August 21, 2008

Disability: Vocational Training for Self Reliance

By Ibrahim Jaffa Condeh and Kevin Hill

People living with the long-term effects of polio in Sierra Leone struggle with the physical limitations that prevent them from living fully normal lives, as well as the stigma attached to being disabled that sees them as being less than full members of society.

In order to combat this stigma and to give people living with the effects of polio a helping hand, vocational training programs in Hastings and Grafton are giving this population the skills they need to make a living in order to support themselves and their families. This training provides them an opportunity to be self-reliant, despite the physical challenges they face.

People living with disabilities caused by polio often live in poverty, which means that paying for food and transportation, living in poor housing conditions and having to provide their children with an education is an even more difficult daily struggle. Medical problems, including malaria, are always a threat, and the heavy burden of medical care is hard for them to withstand.

According to the Global Polio Eradication Program, Poliomyelitis or polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. It invades the nervous system, and can strike at any age, but affects mainly children under three (over 50% of all cases).

The poliovirus enters the blood stream and invades the central nervous system - spreading along nerve fibres. As it multiplies, the virus destroys nerve cells (motor neurons) which activate muscles. These nerve cells cannot be regenerated and the affected muscles no longer function. The muscles of the legs are affected more often than the arm muscles. The limb becomes floppy and lifeless.

There is no cure for polio, but it can be prevented through immunization. The polio vaccine, given multiple times, almost always protects a child for life.

People living with the effects of polio are a highly visible part of the street life in Freetown. Mohamed Kamara, age 26, struggles to get his daily bread through begging on these streets. He said, “Some of us are idling on the streets of Sierra Leone, doing nothing. We are calling on NGOs to come to our aid, as this will help get us off the streets. There is some thing in us that money can not buy, he said.

One such NGO is the Polio Women and Girl’s Development Organisation in Hastings. Senior Teacher at the centre, Fatmata Sesay, who also suffers from the effects of polio, said the organisation is training 12 young girls has 50 registered members, of which 17 are residing at the centre. Tailoring, hair dressing and soap making are some of the skills the women and girls are taught to increase their ability to be self reliant.

The centre at Hastings has six bedrooms with very good toilet facilities for use by the 17 residents. And the building was constructed, and the organisation supported, by British NGO Mission Direct.

Fatmata said, “Polio women are often victimised. Commercial vehicles often do not take them, which makes it hard for them to go about their business: because we are disabled people

According to Fatmata, the organisation has not received any funding from government, so they are reliant on Mission Direct to provide funds to continue the vocational training and residences.

“The rights of disabled people must be adhered to. They must be allowed to work in any office, if they are qualified. There is lots of discrimination and marginalization faced by disabled people. And we can produce better things, but people feel negative about the goods that we produce.”

Another graduate of vocational training is Junior George, age 25, a panel beater in Grafton. He said he feels happy despite the poor opinion certain people have of disabled people. “I face a lot of discrimination within my community, many see polio as bad people - only to cause problems,” he said.

Junior was trained as a panel beater in the southern province of Moyamba, at the age of 14. He now considers himself to be self employed. He makes buckets, coal pots and cutlasses, to name but a few. “The work helps me to feed my family. I am a breadwinner. I hope to see others doing jobs that will help them in the future, rather than seeing them begging on streets just to have a coin”, he said.

The chairman of the Handicap Activity Training Association at the Grafton polio camp, Sulaiman Charles, said the 42 people living in the camp face a lot of problems, including a lack of toilet facilities and money for transport to go to town. “It is difficult to have food for the day. The majority of us go begging on the street. We have skill training, (including blacksmithing) but our tools are not enough. Mobility is difficult. We sell here (in camp) or give to our children to go sell. We get enough money for food selling our goods.”

The industrious community has constructed their own community pre-school, with voluntary 3 teachers, dedicated to teaching 60 pupils who are the children of those affected by polio.

The Public Relations Officer for the Disability Awareness Action Group, Patrick James Taylor, said that since 2003 government not provided aid to disabled people. He asks all political parties to stop using the disabled for “political gains”. World polio day will be celebrated by the Disability Awareness Action group on October 24th, but so far accessing government assistance for the celebrations has proven futile.

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