Sierra Leone: People with disabilities look to an Ebola-free future

Feb 24, 2015

Freetown, Sierra Leone - A group of young wheelchair-bound men barrel down a busy street hustling cars for a few leones (the local currency). The money they collect is meagre - and gets less and less as the Ebola crisis pushes them further towards the fringes of society.

“To change a tire is 70 (thousand leones). For a new bike, its 250,” said David Mgani, one of around 70 people living in a temporary, yet decade-old tent city in a bombed out compound in the centre of Freetown.

It takes days or even weeks to earn enough to afford repairs to the wheelchairs, let alone buy a new chair for around US$50.

In the meantime, the community dubbed HEPPO, The Help Empower Polio People Organization, shares what they can with each other, including a limited number of wheelchairs or crutches.

Those without chairs for the day drag themselves across the ground, making them susceptible to cuts, bruises and infections.

In Sierra Leone, there are an estimated 300,000 people living with disabilities; as many as 200,000 of them are polio survivors and are now left with twisted limbs and limited mobility.

Pushed to the margins of society, they set up camps and compounds around the country and resorted to begging to get by.

“Because of the rejection from their families, from the society, they live in dilapidated houses and in clusters, so this puts them in high risk of getting the infection,” said Haidatou Diallo, Senior Programme Manager with One Family People.

Diallo has helped spread Ebola prevention messages to people with disabilities as part of a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) initiative to reach out to the most vulnerable communities.

To date, in all of the UNDP/One Family People supported communities, no Ebola related deaths or cases of Ebola have been reported.

This is because, Diallo explained, they knew how the virus was spread and what to do to prevent it. In crowded conditions, an Ebola infection would have been catastrophic to people who rely on touch to survive.

Using two sturdy wooden arcs, resident Wenger Komba clacks on the ground, keeping his hands out of the dirt. It’s easier for him to get around on his hands and knees than in a wheelchair. For Komba, Ebola was just one more thing to worry about, but it wasn’t the most pressing issue.

“Our main concern is shelter, and after that is food,” he said.

In the next few months, UNDP will scale up its work with people with disabilities to support livelihoods and food security interventions to help this vulnerable group.

The impact of Ebola on this group was devastating, but they are hopeful that things will get better.

“The way UNDP is helping us now, we want that to continue to help us limit the begging,” Komba said.

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