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New York: SLDC Chairman Addresses UN Body

24 July 2013 at 00:13 | 1351 views

Statement by Frederick Kamara, Chairman and Chief Commissioner of the Sierra Leone National Commission for Persons with Disability (NCPD) on the Status of Disability Issues in Sierra Leone Delivered at the Sixth Conference of State Parties to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), in New York 19th July 2013.

Mr. Chairman,

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great delight and honour for me to address this august congregation on the status of persons with disability (PWDs) in Sierra Leone. As a person with impaired eyesight myself, it is with substantial succor that I wish to happily and confidently state at the outset that Sierra Leone, as a member state and in conformity with the goals and objectives of this Convention, has made tremendous progress over the years in observing and upholding the rights of persons with disability to equal human dignity and social opportunities.

Only a few days ago on July 12th, the re-elected popular Government of H. E. Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma launched its strategic development policy framework for 2013 to 2017, the “Agenda for Prosperity (AfP)”. In the third and sixth pillars of that national development roadmap, PRSP III, Government has categorically demonstrated its sustained commitment to enhancing the general welfare and dignity of vulnerable population groups including persons with disability, to the jubilation and comfort of my kind. As I speak here today, majority of disabled Sierra Leoneans now have good reason to look on to their future in a new horizon of hope for a better life with dignity in society I believe this renewed promise will motivate us to resolve with great determination to harness our potentials with a view to making meaningful contribution to our communities and to national development.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, please permit me to bring these opening remarks into perspective by a brief historical background of disability issues in Sierra Leone. Before the 1950’s, problems of persons with disabilities were totally neglected, largely due to negative cultural perceptions society held about persons living with disabilities. The level of discrimination denied persons with disabilities the opportunity to realize their full potentials, particularly so in rural areas, and were more often doomed to depending on charity for their survival.

Efforts to address disability issues in Sierra Leone began in the 1950s largely through the influence of some expatriate members of the Freetown community, including members of the then colonial administration. The first charitable organization set up in 1951 to address the needs of blind and visually impaired children became known as the Sierra Leone Blind Welfare Society. For this initiative, we pay due tribute to honorable Sierra Leoneans like Mrs. Beatrice Short, Mr. J. T. Roy-Macauley, Mr. E. D. Thorpe, Mr. Feyi Cole; and expatriates such as Mr. J. P. Birch, then General Manager of the United Africa Company (U.A.C.), Mr. Miller, then Manager of Barclay’s Bank, and a few others.

In 1956, the first school for the blind was established in Freetown with three children and has developed into a reputable institution known today as the Milton Margai School for the Blind. Later, following a visit to Sierra Leone by Group Captain Leonard Cheshire during the country’s Independence celebrations in April 1961, the Cheshire Homes Foundation was founded to cater for the needs of physically disabled children and it established the Cheshire Homes in Freetown, the capital city and in Bo, the provincial headquarter town in the South.

Shortly afterwards, largely due to the efforts and influence of persons like Miss Melvyn Stuart and Dr. Arthur D. O. Wright, the Society for the Deaf was founded and led to the establishment of the National School for the Deaf in Freetown. The second one, the St. Joseph’s School for the Deaf, was established in the Northern provincial headquarter town in 1963 by the Catholic Mission.

Furthermore in the early 1970s, the Society for Mentally Retarded Children was founded and, subsequently, the School for the Mentally Affected Children, now known as Hosetta Abdalla School for the Mentally Retarded was established to address the needs of children with learning or psychological disabilities.

By the mid 1970s, some of the children who had acquired education and training from the various schools and institutions began to set-up organizations geared towards serving their respective interests, like the Sierra Leone Youth Society for the Blind (SLYSB), which was later transformed into the Sierra Leone Association of the Blind (SLAB). That organization has continued to serve as a platform to articulate the views, dreams and aspirations of the blind and visually impaired persons in the country. Other organizations for persons with disabilities, such as the Polio Victims Association, came into prominence in the 1980s while the Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues (SLUDI) was founded in the mid 1990s as an umbrella Organization to coordinate activities of all sector organizations of persons with disabilities in the country. This umbrella organization has been a distinct pressure group that successfully lobbied Government for major reforms that saw the inclusion of disabled persons into all spheres of life.

The roadmap to bringing the issues of PWDs to the limelight took a huge step forward in 1993, with the declaration of the International Decade for Persons with Disabilities, urging all state parties on the well-being of PWDs. Sierra Leone observed that declaration, as well as the African Decade for Persons with Disabilities declared in 1999.

After the country’s eleven-year civil war that ended in 2002, the population of PWDs increased significantly due to amputation of limbs and other body parts by the warring factions. This saw the establishment of new organizations such as the “War Wounded Victims Association”, the “Amputees Association”, etc, which played advocacy roles for their respective disabled population groups. Activists for disability issues, both disabled and non-disabled, started taking very bold steps towards addressing disability related issues. Consequently, it became evident that urgent action was needed to address the plight of PWDs.

Following the adoption of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) by the U.N. General Assembly in August 2006, the Sierra Leone Parliament ratified the Convention on 28th July 2009 and eventually, the Disability Bill was enacted in March 2011 and sealed by Presidential accent on 20th April, 2011. One of the key provisions of that Act was the establishment of the National Commission for Persons with Disability (NCPD), with the mandate, among other things, “To prohibit discrimination against persons with disability, achieve equity in opportunities for persons with disability and to provide for other related matters.” The Commission was constituted by Presidential appointments, which were endorsed by Parliament in July 2012.

With the establishment of that Commission, it is expected that persons with disabilities in Sierra Leone will enjoy the following privileges as provided in its statutory instrument: free tertiary education, free medical services, right to employment without discrimination or marginalization, access to infrastructure, public buildings and other public facilities of the like.

However, the Commission is yet in its infancy stage and in the process of setting up its secretariat, currently housed in a temporary accommodation. This has put a hold on the recruitment of personnel for effective execution of its statutory mandate. There are positive indications that this challenge will be resolved sooner than later. Other teething problems such as logistic support are also receiving deserving attention.

In spite of the enormous problems still faced by PWDs in Sierra Leone, much progress has evidently been made in terms of employment and social integration, with emphasis to increase access for disabled persons to mainstream social services, especially education. Part of the process is to provide people with resources, opportunities, knowledge and skills needed to increase their capacity to determine their own future and fully participate in community life. Sierra Leone is now well aware that PWDs too have great potential that, given appropriate opportunities, attitude and approach, could be tapped and harnessed to the benefit of their communities and national development.

In order to empower the disabled in Sierra Leone for their effective participation in the process of national development, the following strategies have been taken into consideration:

Awareness Raising and Sensitization of the Community and the Labor Market

- Government and many organizations are actively involved in awareness raising and sensitization campaigns in a bid to promote and protect the rights and dignity of disabled persons;

Providing Equal Education Opportunities

- The newly established University of Makeni now offers courses in special needs training and consultations are in progress towards setting up a disability related unit in the University of Sierra Leone soon.
However, the lack of teaching and learning materials for special needs children remains a serious challenge. The provision of braille printing and other equipment for the blind as well as modern hearing aid equipment for the deaf will be a significant milestone in enhancing education for these disabled groups in Sierra Leone;

Providing Equal Employment Opportunities

- In what could be perceived as an encouraging development are the appointments of a visually impaired person as Deputy Minister, my humble self as Chairman and Chief Commissioner of the NCPD as well as one of us as a Member of Parliament, to name a few.

Mr. Chairman, I am obliged to inform this gathering that, in all of these strides, Sierra Leone has a considerable number of supportive organizations working on disability related issues, some of which are: Sight Savers, Leonard Cheshire Disability, Handicap International, One Family People, Helen Keller International, Enable Access to Mental Health, World Vision, Cause Canada, UN Agencies and the like. This partnership has contributed to building the emerging enabling environment for the capacity development of disabled persons. Most of these organizations contributed in the development of the relevant national policy and legal framework in the form of the Disability Act 2011, the establishment of the NCPD in 2012 and the like.

Mr. Chairman, let me now proudly pay tribute to the operations of a new initiative in Sierra Leone, the “Dignity Market”, recently established in the capital city of Freetown by the “One Family People”, which I believe ought to be brought to the attention of all of us here. With support and encouragement from Government, this market has provided the bedrock for the transmission of necessary skills to empower PWDs. By this initiative, the embarrassing massive street begging by disabled persons is gradually reducing. Such an empowerment model needs to be applauded and given the required technical and financial support for its sustainable programme growth to enable its replication in all other regions of the country.

Mr. Chairman, it is evident from the foregoing account that Sierra Leone has, since the 1950s, made significant progress in the area of dealing with disability issues and to date, government has continued to demonstrate strong commitment to protecting and promoting the rights and dignity of PWDs. This is a huge source of encouragement and motivation to our affected population group, so much so that our new hope and promise has engendered for us a new self esteem and a sense of belonging with dignity. This in turn has cultivated in us a firm determination to gainfully exploit the new opportunities to pursue our full potentials in order to make meaningful contribution to our communities and to national development as equal citizens.

Nonetheless, we are aware of the huge challenges still ahead of us but we shall bravely march on. We will take that brave march with our trust and confidence in the goodwill support, collaboration and partnership demonstrated by Government, the private sector, Non-Governmental Organizations as well as the international community and we remain optimistic of the promise in the “AfP” for our future as dignified members in society. Above all, we must find strength of courage and comfort in the trust that our present struggle shall bequeath to our succeeding generations of newborn children and other persons with disabilities improved conditions and with opportunities for a life better than we have experienced.

I thank you all for your attention.