During my years as a student at the University of Sierra Leone, I had to pay fees even though I was legally not supposed to. I missed most of the lectures that were held in multistory buildings because there were no ramps. I had no access to the library or internet café because they were not disabled friendly. Studying then was very difficult since I didn’t have the resources to enable me to do very well.
In 2013, I had the opportunity to travel to the United States on an exchange program hosted by Mobility International USA to meet other disabled women from different countries and visit accessible sites, including schools that were disability friendly. I had a strong conviction within me that I should work with the university administration to reduce some of the challenges faced by disabled students in accessing education. It was through the exchange program that I gained the knowledge and confidence to develop the Reducing Barriers to Inclusive Education project. I returned home with great expectation to work with partner institutions to implement this project, but it was not as easy as I thought. My goal was to set up a disability desk on the Fourah Bay College campus, which is one of the University of Sierra Leone’s three campuses, and to have a body that represents and advocates for the educational rights of the students with disabilities.
My first step was to book an appointment with the college administration to discuss the project.
Their response was good but the meeting was adjourned since they had to inform other authorities that were not in the meeting. I waited for almost a month before I was called to a meeting with one of the administrators who asked me to prepare a concept note so that they could submit it to the Principal. I prepared the concept paper and delivered it in the hope that it would not take much time to get a response. After waiting several months, nothing happened.
During the long waiting period, I got five student volunteers with whom I started work.
I had meetings with them to tell them about the project and my experiences in the United States. They became very interested so we took the initiative to start registering disabled students on campus. We found ourselves also helping them with their college registration, so we registered 24 students. Since we didn’t have an office space we had meetings in the open. The university recognized the great work we were doing so they gave us an office space.
Setting up the office was a big challenge since we didn’t have funds.
We needed to construct a ramp as the office was not disabled friendly. I spoke with Mobility International USA who hosted the U.S. exchange program and they advised that I seek help from other organizations and individuals, which I did. The first group to assist us was a student club (Qumanora club), which supported the construction of the ramp and launching the project. Then we met with an organization, Center for the Promotion of Inclusive Education in Sierra Leone, that donated some desktops and a printer. We also received chairs by individual donation. Empowerment for Disability and Social Integration (EDSI) offered to paint the office, buy carpet, and window curtains. The project was finally launched in May 2015 although it started operating in 2013.
Another great challenge we faced was ensuring effective implementation of a law passed by the current president Ernest Koroma that is meant to require that tertiary education be free for all disabled students.
The law was passed in 2007, but disabled students (including myself) were denied our rights. In 2013 when our project started, we were approached by some disabled students who informed us that the college was refusing them registration for the upcoming exams since they did not pay fees. We met with the authorities on campus to inquire and they confirmed that this was true. We reminded them about the system that is in place for disabled student to be granted financial aid. The reply was that they don’t have a particular section responsible for this and they don’t have records of disabled students on campus. I told them that we had the records. All they could say was that the only way they could accept our list is by having it stamped by the Disabled People’s Commission and the Ministry of Education. Immediately I went to the Disabled People’s Commission and they wrote letters to the college, but no action was taken.
I spoke to a friend who advised me to go to the disability desk at the ruling party office. I went to the office and informed them about our challenge. Immediately they made a call to the Ministry of Education and booked an appointment for me with the Minister. Although the Minister was not available, they referred us to the Head of student aid, who then referred us back to the disability desk at the ministry. I spoke with the man in charge on phone, who said that he was done dealing with disabled student matters on campus so there was nothing he could do. Something I learned from the U.S. exchange program came to my mind immediately, which I used as a weapon to succeed. I reintroduce myself and informed him that “I just came from the States, I have contacts, and I know where to report you”. He told me to come tomorrow so that we could work on it and he would stamp the document. We succeeded! We were so happy to deliver the document, which allowed the disabled students register on campus.
Nearly sixty disabled students have benefited since we started the project in 2013. The project has had great success in its inception but some challenges continue. We are hoping to secure funds so that we can have a resource center where disabled students can have access to the internet and other resources for their studies. We also want to replicate this project in other tertiary institutions as many disabled students have not started enjoying the scholarship scheme. We have a lot of ideas, but our greatest challenge has been the funding needed to make our dream of accessible tertiary education for people with disabilities a reality.
My name is Zainab Kamara and I am a Sierra Leonean. I became a paraplegic during the civil war in my country in 1999 due to two bullets. I was hospitalized for nine months and spent three years at home without going to school. I went back to school only to receive the shock of social and structural marginalization. I was asked to leave school because I attempted to negotiate for the construction of a ramp in my school with the support of Handicap International. When I finished school I thought my problems of marginalization were over not knowing that there were greater challenges.
I went to the University which is situated at the top of a mountain and the campus is not geographically disability friendly. There is no access to the library or internet for people with disabilities. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2011 and I also set history as the first female with a wheelchair to graduate from the University of Sierra Leone.
I took up full time advocacy on disabled issues and focused on developing my civil society organization (CSO): Empowerment for Disability and Social Integration (EDSI). We have been working on disability rights and empowerment and have collaborated with different CSOs and institutions that are related to our work. Our main focus has been on accessible and inclusive education for disabled students. In 2013, I was a delegate at the MIUSA Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD) program and I’m also representing people with disabilities in the West African Civil Society Organization in Sierra Leone.
National Coordinator, Empowerment for Disability and Social Integration
Freetown, Sierra Leone