Julius Nye Cuffie remembers his childhood taunts well. The boys in his neighbourhood would chant 'benki lenki' (topsy turvy) as he strolled passed by. Cuffie is now Sierra Leone's first and only disabled Member of Parliament. The limp in his right leg is a result of polio; the jeers were just mean old stereotypes about people with disabilities.
All that could soon change. The ratification of the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Parliament at the end of July was the first step. Up next is the ambitious Persons with Disabilities Bill which was laid before the House in March this year. Cuffie triumphantly narrates his favourite provision of the bill: to make verbal assaults against disabled people punishable by imprisonment up to six months or a fine of up to 1 million leones ($300).
In Sierra Leone, between 500,000 and 600,000 people are physically or mentally challenged, roughly 10 per cent of the population. With a number this overwhelming, it's surprising that there are no special provisions for them in the constitution. The social stigma of being disabled is an additional handicap. Disabilities are associated with witchcraft and black magic; children with polio go through life being called cursed. Cuffie tells me about incidents in the provinces when parents have tried to drown or starve their children to avoid the social inconvenience of caring for a disabled child. The Disability Bill criminalizes parental neglect and maltreatment.
Illiteracy rates exceed 70 per cent in Sierra Leone, which allows these adverse traditional beliefs to fester. Students with disabilities comprise less than one per cent of the population at the university level because of the lack of trained personnel. Cuffie still remembers his visually impaired classmate in law school who was asked to drop out due to the lack of Braille textbooks. The bill provides free schooling for disabled children and scholarships for university students who want to train in special education.
One of the most progressive recommendations is a 10 per cent reservation in Government employment. As for the private sector, tax benefits will be offered to companies that hire mentally or physically challenged workers. Cuffie understands that the Government cannot browbeat corporations into becoming equal opportunity employers; instead appealing to their profit margins is a better option.
If Sierra Leone is going to be a disability-friendly country, the public transport system also needs a complete overhaul. The cheapest way of getting around in Freetown is the ubiquitous poda poda, secondhand minivans that have been genetically engineered into cramped, airless people movers. From the day the Act comes into force, all poda podas will have between three and five years to get in shape with lower steps and fewer seats to accommodate wheelchairs. The same goes for buildings, all of which are missing entry ramps.
Coming back to the UN convention, its ratification after three years of campaigning signals that the Government may finally be ready to recognize disability rights. As bills go, this one deserves an A for effort, but changing mindsets in a superstitious society will be the real challenge.