Visiting Ghanaian works to help disabled
MONTPELIER — After polio paralyzed her below the waist as a child, Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie’s mother carried her on her back to school every day so she could get an education.
Komabu-Pomeyie is from Ghana and she is not letting that education go to waste as she is interning at the Vermont Center for Independent Living in Montpelier, a nonprofit organization that works to promote the dignity, independence and civil rights of Vermonters with disabilities.
She came to the United States as a Ford Foundation scholar and is working toward her master’s degree in policy analysis from the School of International Training in Brattleboro.
Komabu-Pomeyie is an advocate for others like her who are physically disabled. She said in her native country, those who use wheelchairs or crutches because of a physical disability have hard lives. Taxis do not stop to pick them up, toilets, which are holes in the floor, are near impossible to use by someone who is paralyzed, and schools have stairs that are difficult to navigate in a wheelchair, she said.
Komabu-Pomeyie said Ghana has laws on the books to help the physically disabled by making buildings accessible. The problem is the government fails to implement these laws, Komabu-Pomeyie said. The government looks the other way when it comes to the physically disabled, Komabu-Pomeyie said, because they do not have any personal interactions with the physically disabled and treat them as though they don’t exist.
“People normally don’t (think) about disability unless it happens to them or unless it is close to them,” she said.
The actions the government takes to this day show that the physically disabled are not a priority in Ghana, Komabu-Pomeyie said.
“You said every building should be accessible, yet you the government build so many bridges without access (for the physically disabled),” she said.
Ghana does not have a great track record when it comes to the physically disabled. Historically, people who had a physically disabled person in their family were considered cursed by the gods. And Kombau-Pomeyie said while today people do not openly call you cursed, the stigma is still there so the physically disabled feel like second-class citizens.
Komabu-Pomeyie said in the past those born with a physical disability, or who became disabled as children because of an accident, were dumped in the desert or a forest. Komabu-Pomeyie works with a woman who was born without a hand and dumped in the desert, but was picked up by a minister and is now a teacher.
Komabu-Pomeyie said her mother was ridiculed for taking care of her. People would stare and tell her to stop wasting her time.
Things have improved in Ghana, as Komabu-Pomeyie appears on radio and television stations there — something that a disabled person could never have dreamed of in the past — to talk about the problems people like her face with accessibility challenges.
Komabu-Pomeyie’s mother instilled in her the belief that getting an education is the way to improve one’s life. Komabu-Pomeyie is a French teacher in Ghana and her main interest is improving accessibility in schools for the physically challenged. While the deaf and blind attend special schools in Ghana, physically disabled children are mainstreamed in the general student population, so she knows firsthand the hardship of trying to navigate the entrances to public schools.
To address this issue, Komabu-Pomeyie is working with the WaWa Project, a nonprofit organization that works with children with disabilities in West Africa, to retrofit a school in Ghana to make it handicapped-accessible with ramps and raised toilets. When finished, this school will serve as a model for renovation projects at other schools around the country.
Komabu-Pomeyie is also trying to get a handicapped-accessible van donated so that she can drive the physically disabled people she works with to the hospital, meetings, or for any other reason they may need transportation. She currently has to drive the people around in her own car, which she says is too small, and if three physically disabled people need to go somewhere then she has to make multiple trips.
When Komabu-Pomeyie came to the United States last year she expected the plight of the physically disabled to be much different here than in Ghana. She says the Americans with Disabilities Act does a good job of keeping those who break accessibility laws accountable, but she adds that people with physical disabilities still have a hard time.
Komabu-Pomeyie is currently staying with people who volunteered to lend her a room in their house because she has nowhere else to stay. The room was only supposed to be used for a couple days, but she has been there since September. Komabu-Pomeyie thought she had lined up a room that she could rent, but it fell through because the room wouldn’t accommodate her needs. The Vermont Center for Independent Living has been working to find an affordable, accessible room for her, but so far has been unsuccessful.
Ironically, the Americans with Disabilities Act is standing in the way of progress for the disabled in other nations, according to Komabu-Pomeyie. She is trying to get the United States to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a landmark treaty intended to protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities.
Komabu-Pomeyie said the United States hasn’t signed the treaty because of concerns that doing so could undermine the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Komabu-Pomeyie said that is simply not true. She wants the U.S. to sign the treaty as an example to other countries to follow suit.
“If you ratify (the treaty) as a country, it has a reflection on those countries,” she said.
Komabu-Pomeyie is a recent recipient of the World of Difference 100 Award given by The International Alliance for Women. The TWIA each year honors 100 women from around the globe for their work. Komabu-Pomeyie was recognized for the work she has done on behalf of the physically disabled in her community.
She has also worked with the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women In New York.
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