Liberia is a West African country comprised of 4.98 million people. Exact statistics about disability in Liberia are out of date but according to a UNICEF study from 1997, 16 percent of the population has a disability. Of that 16 percent, 61 percent struggle with mobility, 24 percent are visually impaired, seven percent are deaf and eight percent have an intellectual or psychosocial disability. The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), estimated in 2014 that due to the devastating civil war that ended in 2003 and the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the population of people with disabilities in Liberia is likely closer to 20 percent.
People with disabilities tend to be marginalized, stigmatized and excluded from education, skills training and income-generating opportunities. Because they have a limited voice in politics and society, their issues are not included in national policies, especially in poverty reduction initiatives causing their living conditions to continue to deteriorate in a “vicious cycle”. According to SIDA, 99 percent of people with disabilities in Liberia live in extreme poverty.
Liberia is taking steps to improve the lives of those living with disabilities. In 2012, the nation signed and ratified the U.N. Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as well as other treaties that reference the rights of people with disabilities like the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It also formed a national commission on disability and is reviewing its constitution to address the rights of people with disabilities. While the country is working to improve their rights and conditions, there is still much to be done. The lives and health of people with disabilities in Liberia can be improved in three key-ways: education, mental health and job opportunities.
One important tool for lifting people out of poverty is education. The Liberian government has free and compulsory education for children but students with disabilities are often left behind. In 2009, even though an estimated 92,000 of 600,000 school-age children have disabilities, only four percent was allocated for children with disabilities. While there are schools for the visually impaired and the hearing impaired, they mostly reach a small urban population. Rural areas are lacking in resources for their students with disabilities.
There are, however, organizations working to improve access to education. AIFO-Liberia, for example, is working to ensure that people affected by leprosy can receive their educations, largely through a Community Based Rehabilitation strategy.
The Liberian people have been through much in the past 50 years. Approximately 40 percent of its citizens suffer from post-traumatic disorder from the civil war and there is only one practicing psychiatrist in the country. While not all people with disabilities have a mental illness, mental illness itself can become a disability. Those who have mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression are often stigmatized as witches.
The Carter Foundation is working to train 450 mental health professionals and create an anti-stigma campaign to improve understanding of mental illnesses. Meanwhile, AIFO-Liberia implemented a program that provides psychosocial support for those affected by the Ebola virus in addition to a destigmatizing campaign to improve mental health.
People with disabilities in Liberia are often excluded from job skills training, work, and income-generating opportunities. While the Liberian government and activists are working to put accommodation and anti-discrimination laws on the books, disability is often seen as divine retribution for a person’s misdeeds. Organizations like AIFO-Liberia have implemented a startup project that will increase job opportunities and improve social inclusiveness. Ending the social stigma, working to improve health care access and workplace accommodations, will help lift people with disabilities in Liberia out of poverty.
While the country has made great legislative strides in signing on to international commitments and in creating legislation, it still has a long way to go in improving the state of people with disabilities in Liberia. The stigma around these conditions prevents people with disabilities from having a voice and escaping extreme poverty. With the help of activists, NGO’s, and the Liberian government, the lives of people with disabilities can be improved.
– Katharine Hanifen