According to the World Health Organization, 80 percent of the world’s 600 million disabled people are located in developing countries. In Ghana, the disabled constitute one of the most marginalized groups, lacking access to quality public services. Founded in 2012, Dislabelled, a Ghanaian non-profit initiative founded by three young women, Efua Kumea Asibon, Nana Ama Akowuah, Sedinam Worlanyo, seeks to reverse the notion that people with intellectual and physical challenges are unable to become self-sufficient citizens. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to the founders about the challenges facing disabled people across Ghana and their mission to reform the Ghanaian special education system.
What inspired you to start Dislabelled?
While visiting Special Education schools in Accra, we noticed the woefully inadequate supply of teaching materials and the highly unfavorable conditions for effective pedagogy. We recognized how the lack of government intervention and provision and the seeming nonchalance of the Ghanaian society on issues surrounding those with disabilities has left the reform of Special Education on the shoulders of the parents and teachers. After watching Anas Aremeyaw Anas’s Spirit Child we also realized how people with disabilities suffered grueling oppression, even to the point of poisoning to death of some people with disabilities because they were suspected to bear evil spirits. These experiences inspired us to take action and break the stigma attached to people with disabilities as well as to support this marginalized population through effective education.
How were you, Efua, Nana Ama, and Sedinam, drawn to work on this topic together?
We were all in the same high school and used to meet up regularly to chat and work together. During one of our study sessions, the topic of disability in Ghana came up. Subsequently, it kept resurfacing in our conversations and we felt it behooved us to work on a project that would change the narrative of differently abled people in Ghana.
Why the name Dislabelled?
In our beginning stages, we came up with a list of names and ran the idea with Mr. John Kamau, who was our history teacher in high school. He then suggested the name “Dislabelled” and we coined the slogan “Disable the Label.” We chose the name “Dislabelled” above all the others on our list because of the meaning we felt it carried. “Dis,” as we all know, is a Latin prefix that connotes a reversing effect. In Ghana, people who are differently abled are usually branded as “cursed,” “unproductive,” “defeated,” and whatnot. What we sought to do from the start was to change the perception of the Ghanaian society towards people with disabilities and to ensure that people with disabilities are given the requisite resources to become self-sufficient citizens. We also decided to make it “Dislabelled” and not “dislabeled” to create a unique global brand as there is an existing organization called “dislabeled.”
What do you think about the term “disabled”?
We think that the term “disabled” sounds a bit derogatory because a disability is only an aspect of someone, and is something the individual has as opposed to who the person is. It also lays too much emphasis on what the person cannot do vis-a-vis what other people can do. Dwelling more on what people cannot do instead of what they can do, can be quite disheartening. Hence, instead of referring to someone as “disabled,” we encourage you to refer to the person as someone with a disability, a person who is differently abled or an individual with a special need.
What are your current initiatives?
There is our inaugural project ThisAbility, which is a summer program for children with autism. The main purpose for this program is to unearth the skills, creativity, interests, and talents of people on different ends of the autism spectrum. It also provides a platform for us to immerse ourselves into the autism microcosm in Ghana to better inform our efforts. Currently, the focus of the program is on robotics, arts and crafts, and music and dance. After evaluating this program, we are currently restructuring it and we hope to expand our reach to other special needs.
We also have The Untold Stories Project, which sheds more light on the campaign division of our mission. Dislabelled, believes that people with special needs are a trove of life-changing stories; stories that can transform the lens through which people view them. It is our desire that this change in lens will cause us to rethink the type of society we are building. Untold Stories focuses the limelight on the stories of people who are differently abled, mentally or physically. Through these stories, we hope that there will be a paradigm shift in how we perceive this marginalized population.
SustainAbility: This is one of our more recent projects, geared towards equipping special need teachers with the necessary training to improve efficiency in their fields. In August 2015, we collaborated with the HopeSetters Autism Center in Ghana and Ms. Casey McFeely (a specialist in special education) to provide a one-week intensive training session for the teachers at HopeSetters. During this period, the teachers learnt about systems of communication, iPad and personal computer usage, parent counselling, as well as evidence-based intervention methods. Based on a prior needs assessment, Hopesetters was also given items like iPads, furniture, PECS books, sports equipment, and Boardmaker Software.
You can find out more about our initiatives on our social media pages.
How have you been able to continue to work on Dislabelled as you all pursue degrees in the United States?
Honestly, it has been quite challenging because we are only able to be on the ground when school is on break. A lot of planning is done remotely through phone calls, Skype calls, and other means of communicating. However, we maximize our vacation time to ensure that everything is in place till the next time we are in Ghana. Our partners are also very helpful in doing the work that requires us to be physically present on our behalf. Special thank you to Ms. Casey McFeeley and Mrs. Baaba Enchill for their incredible support.
How do you think Ghanaian society views and treats those with intellectual and physical challenges?
Last year, certain persons with disability were invited to Ghana’s Parliament to observe the proceedings for the Disability Act. Unfortunately, they were unable to access the chamber of parliament they were invited to because there was no accessible entrance. Human Rights Watch and investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas have also revealed how people with disabilities face serious abuse because they are believed to carry evil spirits. Moreover, it is very rare to find a disability-friendly building in Ghana. The ramps are usually not built to accommodate wheelchairs but instead, to transfer items and this makes us wonder if we place more priority on inanimate objects than on human beings. We have listed all these circumstances to show how people who are differently abled people in Ghana are ostracized from society. What is more troubling is that, there seems to be no significant concern for this marginalised population, neither is there any fruitful public discourse on how to support them. Hence, the Ghanaian society has a lot of work to do to correct our cultural understanding of disabilities. We also need to change how we accommodate the needs of this disenfranchised population.
What’s next for Dislabelled?
We see ourselves spreading our wings to more special education schools in Ghana and tackling physical disabilities as well. Our hope is that every Special Education school in Ghana will have adequate teaching materials, a conducive learning environment, and well-paid and professionally trained teachers. In the future, we hope Dislabelled in collaboration with other organizations will help achieve this. Our dream is to expand our focus to healthcare, employment, and policy making with regards to people with disabilities.
How can other people support you or follow your projects?
To help us champion this cause, please like our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter and on Instagram. We welcome donations, both in cash and in kind. You can also volunteer for us or start a Dislabelled chapter on campus. You should also watch out for our website which we will be launching soon.