While riding the trotros to and from our service site every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I frequently see individuals with various physical disabilities lining the middle divider of the road. Unlike the various sellers of goods that they share this space with, these individuals are not shouting out “nsao” or “borɔdeɛ” or prices, but instead they weave between the cars stuck in traffic and reach out in hopes that someone will hand a cedi out the window for them. This alone might not be particularly noteworthy; I see similar individuals as I drive down the streets of Atlanta.
But on Wednesday when we visited the Cape Coast School for the Deaf and Blind, I was struck by the reflection of how little I see people with disabilities elsewhere in Ghanaian society. With the exception of those on the road and the children we saw in the school, disability seemed hidden from the public eye. I have not encountered any individuals with disabilities in shops, businesses, restaurants, the university, or anywhere else in Ghanaian public life. Thinking further, I wonder about navigating crossing streets with no crosswalks if an individual cannot see, about catching a trotro if one communicates nonverbally or is hard of hearing, or moving along a market on the side of street in a wheelchair in uneven terrain.
During one of our ANT 321 Classes, Dr. Dr. Otchere Addai-Mensah asked us to think about the buildings that we’ve been moving through during our stay in Ghana so far. Do they include ramps or elevators? Braille on signs? Hand railings? The more we looked, the more the answer was “no.” Even in our own building, there is no accessible way to access the upper floors. The stairs between the floors are uneven, meaning without sight, they could be tough to navigate. I’ve felt conflicted about how I feel about this lack of accessibility. On one hand, I am judging based on amendments we have made in some (but certainly not all) American buildings. What works for individuals in the United States might not work for those in Ghana. The United States does not do a particularly stellar job at making its system accessible either, and perhaps therefore I should not be comparing based on what I’ve seen at home. And how does Ghana’s economic situation and its effect on costs in construction play into the picture? How does education and literacy levels affect this problem? Do beliefs in traditional medicine hurt or help?
Our visit to the Cape Coast School for the Deaf and Blind shifted my perspective on the response to disability here in Ghana. There, we saw children thriving as they shared their traditional dance performances and songs with us. The headmaster explained that the children would complete their education and take their exams at the same time as (or sometimes a year later than) their able-bodied peers. These adolescents go on to either further schooling or apprenticeships and become active and skilled members of their community.
The school represented a healthy response to those with differing abilities in society. The students were energetic and engaged, playfully signing in ASL to each other behind the back of the headmaster and giggling at the sight of small group of foreigners who had come to watch their end of the year performance.
Ableism in Ghana is critiqued online by journalists, who have called out the comments of politicians who leave out or degrading people with disabilities. Recently in January, a journalist even pushed back against President Nana Addo for his assertion that “We came to fix Ghana, and in these two years, it is only those who are blind or deaf who are not aware that indeed we have done something.” The journalist asserted that “Mr. President, the blind and deaf are Ghanaians too.”
As more attention is focused on ableism and disability through the media and NGO’s founded by and for people with disabilities (links to these organizations below) gain traction in more areas of Ghana, perhaps a future visitor to Ghana will have a different experience than me, encountering people with various abilities in every area of Ghanaian life. Ableism is a problem in every culture, and we could all do more to check our language and our able-bodied privileges.
Links to critiques of ableism in politician’s comments: