Dollars and Sense in Special Education and Rehabilitation
By Dr. Sakui W. G. Malakpa
Whatever the correct number of PWDs in Liberia, it is incontrovertible that the figures are high for such a small country. Thus, ensuring the education, rehabilitation and employment of PWDs in Liberia need not be seen as a mere humanitarian gesture. Rather, it has implications for human rights, socio-economic development, social justice, the African tradition, and the integrity of the state.
To address the colossal problem of special education and rehabilitation in Liberia, the community of people with disabilities in Liberia, a handful of interested individuals (some government officials), and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) coalesced to ensure the passage of a disability act in Liberia. This act, passed by the National Transitional Legislative Assembly (NTLA) called for, among other things, the establishment of a National Commission for PWDs as well as an assistant ministership charged with disability issues in the Ministry of Education.
To enforce the mandates of the legislation under discussion, the Union of Organizations of People With Disabilities in Liberia was asked to present a budget for the establishment of a disability commission, among others. This budget (1.4 million U.S. dollars) was developed and presented to the President, madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who assured that same would be included in the national budget to be passed in July, 2006 (Johns & Kota, 2006). Unfortunately, by the time that budget was passed, the disability commission portion was deleted. The national Legislature nonetheless allocated seventy-five thousand U.S. dollars ($75,000) for the functioning of an interim commission and all activities related to people with disabilities in the country (Johns & Kota).
To embark on projects for PWDs in line with the relevant legislation, officials of the Union of Organizations of People With Disabilities in Liberia established an interim management team headed by Mr. Robert Williams alongside representatives of various disability categories. This interim management team was set up because no official appointments have been made by the President.
While a management team continues to work on an interim basis, it must be stressed that seventy-five thousand U.S. dollars for the education, rehabilitation and employment of a huge number of people with disabilities is a good and commendable step in the right direction but it is a drop in the bucket. Dollars are needed for special education and rehabilitation/training purposes (covering personnel, equipment, etc.), transportation, job placement and services, accessibility projects and many more. Members of the Union of Organizations for People with Disabilities are not seeking such funds as handouts; instead, like any other members of society, they yearn for education and training possibilities that will enable them to gain employments to better their lives and support their families while, at the same time, they are taxpayers and respectable members of society.
In spite of the enormous needs of people with disabilities in Liberia, it is indisputable that the country is crawling slowly from the rubble of war and that President Johnson-Sirleaf and her government inherited a devastated economy. Thus, like every other sector of the country and economy, there is not enough fund to go around. This is why, to meet the huge needs of people with disabilities in Liberia, there must be not only dollars but also sense in special education and rehabilitation services. For example, it makes sense to abide by the mandates of the disability legislation and ensure that hiring of qualified people with disabilities (PWDs) is not limited to government alone; rather, a certain percentage of employees of any employing entity should comprise qualified persons with disabilities. It also makes sense to give tax breaks to individuals and entities which support special education and rehabilitation activities. Likewise, it makes sense to give tax breaks to employers and academic institutions which purchase adaptive equipment for learning or employment purposes and/or undertake modification projects to enhance accommodation and accessibility. In addition, it makes sense to include disability expenditures in proposals to international agencies (especially UN agencies) most of which have special allocations for special education and rehabilitation projects. Moreover, it makes sense to turn most (if not all) half a million people (and counting) PWDs into taxpayers and respectable members of society as opposed to the same being dependent on government and the meager incomes of family members.
It also makes sense to understand that, in addition to the problem of limited funds, impediments to funding special education and rehabilitation services in Liberia are buttressed by myths and misconceptions regarding people with disabilities. Misconceptions foster an unfounded conviction that, as PWDs are unable to “pay back” funds expended in their favor, such funding is a matter of humanitarian gesture. Consequently, such funding must wait until other “more relevant” sectors of the economy and population are addressed. Such a conviction is lamentable indeed as providing special education and rehabilitation services is a major human resource development venture with quantifiable and unquantifiable benefits accruing to individuals, communities and the nation.
In spite of the numerous examples of the capabilities of people with disabilities, myths and misconceptions about such persons persist because programs and policies related to them still are propelled by pity and sympathy. It therefore makes sense to move issues and programs related to PWDs from pity to pride, empowerment, and equal societal participation. It makes sense to move these issues from sympathy to empathy, and from humanitarianism to egalitarianism. Without these monumental changes, people with disabilities will continue to be marginalized and their issues given minimal attention. They will continue to be regarded as “handicapped,” a term which originates from the phrase, “cap in the hand,” and therefore suggestive of mendicancy and being at the bottom of the social latter.
Furthermore, it makes sense to understand that, to effect the necessary monumental change, it is imperative that stakeholders, the media, and the public in general be educated relative to the presence, rights, and potential contributions of people with disabilities. Anything short of this on a genuine, serious and deeply committed level will only exacerbate a vicious cycle of solicitation, misconception, inaction, and consequent marginalization of people with disabilities.
Grol, C. E. J. (2000). The Education of Pupils With Special Educational Needs in Africa, Looked at Within the African Context (Presented at ISEC 2000). www.isec2000.org.uk/abstracts/papers_g/grol_1.htm. Retrieved Nov. 21, 2005.
Johns, K. D. & Kota, B. (2006). Statements on the Star Radio Program, “I Beg to Differ,” October 16, 2006.
Kalabula, M. D. (2000). Inclusive education in Africa: A myth or reality? A Zambian case. Presented at ISEC 2000. www.isec2000.org.uk/abstracts/papers_k/kkalabula_1.htm. Retrieved Nov. 21, 2005 ¬
Dr. Sakui W. G. Malakpa
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