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Lookin Inside from Outside

Toward a Disability Legislation in Liberia: A Position Paper

As peace returns to Liberia, efforts to rebuild the country have focused on various reconstruction paradigms considering health, infrastructure, economy, and the like. However, minimally emphasized (sometimes totally missing) in these paradigms are special education and rehabilitation services for persons with disabilities; this is a calamitous oversight.

Indeed, it is regrettable when, as in Liberia, people with disabilities are treated as social welfare cases whose interests must wait until all other sectors of the society and economy are comfortably in place – an unachievable feat. This is unfortunate because Article 11 of both the 1983 and 1984 Constitutions of Liberia guarantee “Entitlement to Fundamental Rights” and “Right to Equal Protection of the Law,” while Article 18 of the same constitutions provide for “Right to Equal Opportunity for Work and Employment.”

Sincerely, we recognize and highly commend the efforts of individuals and entities striving strenuously to address the prodigious needs of persons with disabilities in Liberia. However, the truth is, irrespective of genuine efforts of a few and in spite of favorable constitutional provisions; people with disabilities in Liberia are largely ignored and often left to fend as mendicants. People with sensory deficits have limited access to public education and certainly have no access to the University of Liberia and other institutions of higher education. In general, people with disabilities in Liberia have no access to employment.

As a result, no matter how they are determined, brilliant and talented, their humanity ignored their self-esteem and self-confidence dashed, and their opportunities to contribute to themselves, their communities and nation obviated.

Without Divine intervention and the invaluable help I received from my family, relatives, friends and the late President Tolbert, I probably would have been limited to my little hut in Wozi, Lofa County. On the contrary, by God’s grace and with the help I received, I can say with deep humility and profound gratitude that I was able to study in Freetown, earn a bachelor’s degree cum laude and a master’s degree from Florida State University, a masters and a doctorate from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of Toledo where I work as a full and tenured professor. These, ladies and gentlemen with disabilities in Liberia, determined, brilliant and talented, deserve no less an opportunity.

To cite only a few examples, while blind students still have no access to the University of Liberia, Fourah Bay College of Sierra Leone graduated its first blind student in 1972. Since then, Fourah Bay and other institutions of higher education in Sierra Leone continue to graduate students who are blind and with other disabilities. In like manner, other sister African countries, including those that endured wars and internal conflicts (e.g. Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa) have bureaus and commissions (although by no means perfect) similar to those advanced by the proposed legislation in Liberia.

In Zambia, hundreds of individuals with disabilities are employed in eleven agricultural settlements. In Egypt, it is compulsory that five percent of employees of every public institution’ consist of qualified persons with disabilities; private institutions and enterprises which employ more than fifty persons must ensure that at least five percent of those employees are qualified persons with disabilities.

Specifically, as cited earlier, the Liberian Constitution guarantees fundamental rights of all citizens and underscores the right to work and employment. These and other relevant constitutional provision should not be ignored with regard to people with disabilities in Liberia. Conversely, these provisions should be given teeth by this proposed legislation.

Recognizing the humanity and human rights of people with disabilities is an uncompromising phenomenon. Conversely, with rehabilitation and education, they can be reintegrated into society as contributive citizens.

There are economic justifications for the services the legislation under discussion proposes. It is estimated that, on average, ten percent of every population can be categorized as being disabled; this is one in every ten persons in any community. This data is increased in the face of poverty thereby deepening poverty. Hence, it is said that poverty causes, and is caused by, disability. Worse still, this statistical data is escalated astronomically in light of wars and insurrections as is the case of Liberia.

This huge percentage of people with disabilities therefore needs to be educated, trained, and employed to become productive and taxpaying citizens. Without such efforts, this population of people with disabilities will be dependent on the employed few thereby detracting from economic growth and development. Economic development pundits therefore argue that no nation can develop at an acceptable pace – let alone a desired pace – without addressing this problem effectively, efficiently and consistently.

Providing for persons with disabilities and the elderly is inextricable element of the African culture. This point is not a reversal of justifications based on law or economics. Likewise, far from it, this is not an advocacy for sympathy or a discrete return to notions of social welfare and protectionism.

Ultimately, however, whether we serve as legislators or business people, scholars or artisans, we are what we are because of our culture. With the problem at hand then, the African culture is a great asset. While it is realized that there are differences and nuances within this culture, one of the main foci of the culture is a sense of communalism, which teaches “All for one and one for all.”

Regarding disability, a Congolese proverb sums it when it asserts that, “No matter how big, strong or rich a person, he is not two persons. No matter how small, weak, poor or disabled a person, he is not a half person.” My own Loma tradition adds similar proverbs: “A crippled person’s work is never scarce.” “A child is a child.” “When you deliver with a snake, you tie him around your waist.” “When God breaks the leg of a chick, He will show that chick how to walk.” “There is no bush for dumping bad children.”

Adding to the notion of African culture is the essence of civilization. The Arabic scholar, Dajani, argues that the level of a people’s civilization is measured in part by the extent to which such people care and provide for the elderly, the unfortunate, and the disabled. On this ground, where does Liberia stand in 2005?

Additionally, for everyone, there is food for thought in the axiom I once picked up from a conference; that is, “An able-bodied person is one who is not disabled YET!” Courtesy of Sakui W. G. Malakpa Ph.D., J.D.

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