The Sierra Leone Web


Statement by His Excellency the President
Alhaji Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
On The Launching Of The Seminar On A Law On Disability
8 April 2005

It is my great pleasure to be with you today to participate in the launching of this very important seminar on the development of legislation in support of disabled people. It is sometimes said that a society can be judged by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. While there is great compassion among our people for amputees, polio victims, blind people and others with disabilities, economic conditions of many families in our post-war environment make it difficult for them alone to provide support to those with special needs. Therefore, Government has long recognized its obligations towards disabled people and has sought to complement the efforts of family members and the disabled themselves to build an enabling environment where disabled people can be empowered to take their full place in our society to the limit of their abilities.

Post-war Sierra Leone is now both rebuilding its infrastructure and transforming its social institutions to create a caring society built on sustainable economic growth. Disabled people are an important resource whose skills, together with those of all other Sierra Leoneans, are vital to ensure the success of our efforts. In order to benefit fully from the contributions of disabled people, our society needs to address the needs of the disabled in several areas: health and rehabilitation, education, physical access, employment and sports.

But before we can address these areas effectively, we must confront negative social attitudes and the psychological impact of them on disabled people. If someone senses that he or she is being marginalized, is a burden on family and society, is being blamed for having a handicap or is lumped together with all others with the same handicap regardless of individual talents, that person will become discouraged, depressed and may exhibit anti-social behaviour. I have more than once heard people make casual remarks about "the polios" or "the amputees" as if everyone in these categories behaves exactly the same. This is wrong and is no different from someone in Europe making disparaging remarks about "Africans" or "Jews" or "black people." We must move beyond simplistic stereotypes based on ignorance and embrace our disabled people for what they are: our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, children, friends and fellow citizens who share our needs, our hopes and our common humanity.

This common humanity was the basis for our Government's humanitarian relief efforts in the immediate post-war period when amputees and war wounded were provided with temporary shelter, food and non-food items, transportation and trauma counseling through NaCSA. Hundreds of homes were also built by the Norwegian Refugee Council and others to help resettle amputees and war wounded and promote their reintegration into society. Our Government worked diligently to secure support for amputees from a wide range of organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, FAO, UNICEF and UNHCR. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made recommendations on the payment of reparations to amputees and war victims and their recommendations are currently under review with a view to early action. Government also listens to the views of the disabled through Voice of the Handicapped, 96.2FM.

I said a moment ago that Government must address the health and rehabilitation needs of the disabled. The first goal of Government is to prevent disabilities. This is why we have long sought and, with the support of the World Health Organisation and others, recently achieved the eradication of polio from our society. I never want to see another infant in our country afflicted with this terrible disease! Government is also making a tremendous effort through the National AIDS Secretariat to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS which leads to disability and death. In the area of rehabilitation, Government with support from the British High Commission, rehabilitated the Murray Town Limb Fitting Unit and has encouraged the work of groups such as Handicap International and Mercy ships who provide wheelchairs, prosthetic devices and other support for disabled people. Of course, Government's greatest achievement in the area of prevention is the successful end of the war and the brutal amputations that have traumatized so many of our citizens.

In the area of education, Government supports the schools for the blind in Freetown, Bo and Kabala; the School for the Deaf; Cheshire Homes; SOS Children's Village for the Handicapped and the School for the Mentally Retarded. Disabled people have also benefited from scholarships awarded by the Ministry of Education and the efforts of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs which since 1969 has had a special unit to support disabled people. Despite this, much remains to be done. There is no special school beyond the primary level for deaf people anywhere in Sierra Leone. The university system hardly has any means to offer special support to blind or deaf students and is not accessible for wheelchairs. And we have very few trained special education teachers able to work effectively with handicapped children. Technical and vocational training is also more limited for the disabled and no special programmes have yet been established leading to self-employment for handicapped people. We must do more in these areas.

Physical access remains a challenge for disabled people and it is an area where we intend to do more. Although the Ministry of Education has required that schools built or rehabilitated by the Sababu Project and other funding sources be accessible to the handicapped by widening doorways and including ramps for wheelchairs, we have only begun to address this problem in other areas such as sidewalks, Government buildings, hospitals and clinics and elsewhere. When considering legislation in support of the disabled, requirements in this area could help speed up modifications to existing infrastructure to build a more accessible environment for the handicapped.

Non-discrimination in employment is another key goal of Government since it is no good educating and training people who are then unable to compete for jobs on an equal basis with everyone else. Recently, I learned that when NaCSA offered trained volunteers to local NGOs whose specific objective is to assist vulnerable groups, several organizations that completed the application form requesting volunteers to be assigned to them stated in writing that disabled people would not be considered! I also hear complaints that handicapped people are often refused transport by taxi and other transport drivers. I find this shocking and contrary to our goals of full inclusion of the disabled in the workplace. Not only should such discrimination be against the law, but Government agencies, NGOs, businesses and others should be making positive efforts to ensure that disabled people can work.

Sports help bind a nation together, bring joy to millions and enable those who participate to stay physically fit and share in the spirit of good sportsmanship. Disabled people compete globally in the Special Olympics and here at home I see polio victims and amputees playing football on the beach on crutches! This spirit must be encouraged and we as a Government will do whatever we can to support sports activities for the handicapped.

All of these areas are ones that the Law Reform Commission can usefully address when considering legislation to support the disabled. I am very pleased that the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs is collaborating with the Law Reform Commission in this regard to produce a Law on Disability and that the Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues has been involved in public education in this regard. As you know, public understanding is critical if the law is to be accepted and respected in practice. I assure you that Government will enforce the law to ensure that such legislation makes an effective difference in the lives of our disabled citizens. In this regard, I urge the Law Reform Commission to examine the draft policy and draft legislation on disability which addresses most, if not all, of the issues I have mentioned. These two documents are now with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs.

Before closing, let me emphasize one final point. There should be one common aim of our legislation on disability and that is the full integration of the disabled into our families and communities. Each of us is, in fact, disabled in one way or another. Some cannot walk, some cannot hear and some cannot see but others are unable to lift a heavy load, or read and write or drive an automobile. And the most able among us can be transformed in an instant into a disabled person through accidents and disease. So the line between "abled" and "disabled" is thin and frail and should never be allowed to define a human being or his or her opportunities in society.

Finally, as this seminar is officially launched, I want to extend my personal thanks to all of our institutions, individual citizens, friends and donors who have made improving the lives of disabled people their cause. It is also my cause and I join with you in our common struggle for a better future for all disabled people.

With these few remarks, it is my pleasure to formally launch the Seminar on the Law on Disability.

I thank you.