Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Cultural Issues on Disability

One of the student’s assignments for this trip was to interview at least one non-disabled community leader in the Accra region about their perception of disabilities and disability culture in Ghana. We (of course) also talked to a lot of people with disabilities, but we wanted to get a sense from the broader community how those with disabilities were viewed. Accra is capital city of Ghana. The community leaders we interviewed were generally educated, middle class individuals. Much of what they said was not new in terms of the traditional beliefs regarding disabilities in Ghana and other developing countries in Africa. In the past, and in many areas of Ghana still today, if a child is born with a disability it is believed to be a result of evil spirits, a failure of the family to keep taboos, or some type of witchcraft. In some cases infanticide is committed, other times the child is kept hidden for years. The child may also be left at an orphanage or sent to beg on the streets (which is where you find a lot of Ghana's disabled population). Published in the International Journal of Rehabilitation Research in 1983, Sylvia Walker indicated that college-enrolled students in Ghana were less likely than their non-educated peers to blame the individual or their parents for the disability, though they were less favorable about actually interacting with a disabled person. Based on the people we talked to on this trip, level of education does seem to play a role in the understanding of disabilities and the potential of those who are disabled. There is even some acknowledgement that disabilities are not all physical; we frequently heard mention of the disabled being “those not right in the head” or even once those “suffering from the heartbreak”. The new Ghanaian disability law promises education and access for those with disabilities though there is a lot of skepticism on the part of both the disabled and non-disabled alike how effective this law will be, particularly in the more rural regions of the country. I like this article on ModernGhana.com

One of my personal goals for this trip was to identify future projects, ways to partner with the people in Ghana to aid in their efforts to make the promises made in the disability law a reality. One major initiative that needs to happen is good-old education. Now the way to do this is not to go storming into the country and saying “your beliefs are wrong, let me show you what us wise westerns know”; NO, that is not a good idea. But I do think that by traveling to different villages (particularly in rural areas)and talking to the local health care workers or birthing attendants, would provide opportunities to help people understand not only what causes disabilities (e.g. like bum polio shots and bad water), but more importantly increase their awareness that children born with disabilities can still grow to be contributing, functional members of their families and communities. If these things are acknowledged, then you can begin to start talking to them about appropriate treatment and therapy. During this trip I was shocked when we met a 9 year old girl who clearly had Down ’s syndrome (or a very similar chromosomal disorder) and the family told us that what they really needed was to get to the doctor to get more medication to help cure her. This was a family with limited means and who clearly wanted to help their daughter (who had been kicked out of school because she bit her teacher and the teacher thought her disorder was contagious), but needed basic education and guidance about the nature of her condition.

Our group brainstormed with one Ghanaian family about how disability education could be done through videos or skits put on in the local villages. This approach apparently has worked in the past and is currently being used (along with signs and billboards) to educate people about HIV/AIDS. This is just one of the many ideas for future projects VCU students could get involved in, potentially in partnership with our friends in the School of Social Work and the School of Nursing…


Sean and Candice Thompson said...

Hi Stacey! My name is Candice Thompson, and I am an OT who recently traveled to the Republic of Congo with my husband who was a medical student at the time (now resident) to work in a rural hospital and bring OT and a rehabilitative perspective to the community there. I am so inspired by your efforts and what you have written!
I was so passionate to go out and share, and love on the people, and YES, I too found that education is key. Thanks so much for sharing, I appreciate your passions, and it's neat to make a connection with you! How neat for your students!

Stacey Reynolds said...

Thanks Candice, your work in the Republic of Congo sounds very exciting too!