Africa’s economic development is in peril if you ask Francis Asong, Executive Director of Voice Ghana. As the African continent continues to grow economically and evolve, it cannot manage to realize the fullest extent of its potential without recognizing that people with disabilities (PWDs) are a critical part of the contribution process. It is all too common in Ghana, where Francis leads the Voice team that PWDs are overlooked and underserved. Asong launched Voice Ghana initially with a focus on the northern region of Volta around the town of Ho. Since its inception in 2002, it has continued to grow influence and vision to not only transform Ghana, but extend to Western Africa and then beyond.
Matthew is a blind person in the Oti District. It was not long ago that he spent most of his days in his parent’s house, darkness in his eyes and in his heart. He had little hope and no dreams to speak of. He was depressed. What caused Matthew’s blindness is still a mystery. He was not born this way and the majority of the people in the self-help group of 25 or so became blind in their teens and twenties. Because of the self-help group, and their acceptance into the local planning and government activities, there may soon be some research into the cause, whether it is a form of river blindness or some other environmental factor.
But something changed with the self-help group that Voice Ghana helped establish. Self-help groups are essential to a small NGO like Voice. They do not have the financial resources or to do so would be a peanut butter spread so thin it would do little in the bigger picture of things. But what Francis’ team does so extraordinarily well is to provide training and support to create these community-based self-help groups in the villages that are spread across this country that is approximately the same size as Britain or the state of Michigan. Almost 80% of the population lives outside the three largest cities and are largely agricultural and rural.
But none of that slowed Matthew once he found his own voice. He started with a small rice paddy and now, in a matter of 7 or 8 years, he owns a large rice farm, as well as plantations with cassava and a store in town. Through his economic success, he now owns his own house which has electricity and a satellite for television. Matthew is now commonly referred to as The Chairman of the self-help group and his eloquent and gentle way of speaking shows how far he has come from the times when he sheltered himself away from the world in his parent’s home.
As Matthew’s story shows, people are at the core of the success of Voice Ghana. Throughout the two weeks, PWB photographer Jon Lloyd met dozens of Ghanians whose life had been changed by their efforts, and yet struggled in their day to day lives due to inadequate accessibility. Julius is a government worker in a finance department, and also happens to be the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of Voice Ghana. Jon went to visit Julius one morning to see first hand where he worked and one of so many similar stories. Julius does not have the use of his legs. His office is on the second floor of an old concrete building with a gravel drive. To get up the stairs to his office, Julius must crawl up two flights of stairs, and return down the same way at the end of his day. The same physical effort is required to go down to the washroom.
Voice Ghana has lobbied government bodies and local engineering offices to ensure they comply with the Accessibility Standards that has been developed by a global body of professional engineers and disability experts, with funding through Star Ghana and the Ford Foundation. Unfortunately, not much has changed. Definitely not with existing buildings. Lloyd spent some of the days of his project traveling throughout the Volta and Oti Districts visiting new government buildings, police stations, and public markets. In each and every case, the compliance to the standards and even basic common sense were a complete failure. The ten-year moratorium on incorporating these standards expired in 2016, and new projects must follow the standards or face lawsuit and financial implications. “There has been some effort to comply here,” says Charles Nyante, Programs Manager for Voice Ghana, “but the reality is that they have failed and to correct what they’ve done will cost significantly more than if they would have done it right from the start.” Even though Ghana’s engineers are supposed to be taught this in school and the local districts hire only Certified Engineers, there is little to show for it from an accessibility and disability perspective.
As Matthew, and Voice founder Francis Asong can attest, neither were born with their respective disabilities. Asong says, “Disabilities can come later in life, for many reasons, and besides, why would a ramp not be preferred to someone walking into a hospital that is elderly or pregnant?” Indeed, whether it is a ramp, wider doorway, or support in a toilet, there are many persons who would not traditionally be considered disabled that would benefit. In one building where there was a ramp next to some stairs, both of which were entirely too steep, PWB photographer Jon Lloyd watched with interest as even able-bodied people preferred to use the ramp.
If you ask Francis what he dreams about at night, his answer might surprise you. This soft-spoken man has big ambitions. Francis says, “Our plan currently is to transform VOICE Ghana into a Disability Institute, and to establish a disability Think-Tank with team of disability experts and professionals to engage in disability related research and capacity building. The Institute is envisioned to play an active and leading role in policy advocacy and inclusive governance for marginalized and socially excluded persons with disabilities in Ghana, across Africa and globally.” Life is Ghana may be difficult for him to get around, but it is not slowing him down in his quest for inclusion in his hometown of Ho, and what he sees as an economic driver for an entire continent.