Fifteen percent of people live with a disability – 80% of them in developing countries.
Every year, on December 3, the world recognises International Day of Persons with Disabilities, to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development – political, social, economic, educational and cultural.
Disability is common. Around 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability.
Despite this, people with disabilities face extensive discrimination in education, employment, the healthcare system and other services. This invariably exposes them to extreme poverty and isolation.
Rights and protections in Sierra Leone
On paper, people with disabilities in Sierra Leone have considerable rights and protections. The basic protections included in the Constitution of Sierra Leone, 1991 were given a boost with the introduction of the Disability Act in 2011.
This includes free healthcare and protection from discrimination in employment amongst its provisions.
To ensure the Disability Act was put into practice, the Government established the National Commission for Persons with Disability in 2012.
As always, implementation is the Achilles heel and despite progress on paper, life for people with disabilities in Sierra Leone has probably not changed as much as it could.
We only have to look at our streets, where the sight of people with disabilities begging is part of daily life, to see how precarious existence is for many.
Part of the problem is caused by inadequate and contradictory data. This inevitably hampers understanding and planning for their needs.
The 2015 census puts the number of people with disabilities at around 93,000, or 1.3% of the population. Other studies suggest almost five times that number – at 6.4% of the population.
In comparison, neighbouring Liberia’s figures show that people with disabilities make up 14% of their population.
Factors such as Sierra Leone’s weak health service, disease, road accidents, birth trauma and poor nutrition, as well as the effects of past political upheaval, suggest that our numbers are likely to be at the higher end of the scale.
What the Medium-term National Development Plan says about disability
Sierra Leone’s Medium-term National Development Plan 2019–2023, which commits to improving inclusivity for people with disabilities, identifies a wide range of barriers in its bleak summing up of the current situation:
“Specific challenges facing Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) include inadequate domestic investment in addressing disability issues, inadequate facilities and equipment for PWDs, weak implementation of the Disability Act, inadequate and unreliable data on PWDs, and societal stigma.”
Disability and employment in Sierra Leone
Data on persons with disabilities are hard to come by in almost every country. Specific data on their employment situation are even harder to find. Yet persons with disabilities face the same predicament everywhere.UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs
Work doesn’t only provide social inclusion, it also provides intellectual stimulation and an increased sense of self-worth. Inclusive recruitment practices which encourage more people with disabilities into the workplace would also be good news for the economy. Despite this, statistics show there is still a vast employability gap for people with disabilities.
The 2015 census report on disability in Sierra Leone found that just 1.8% of persons with disabilities (aged 15 and above) in the country are working and most are self-employed.
The majority are engaged in agriculture and forestry (70.3% of women and 66.8% of men). The next most common occupation is working in the service sector (19% of women and 8.5% of men). A further 10.8% of males and 3.2% of females with disabilities who work, are engaged in craft and related trade work.
Policy recommendations based on the census data include:
- Affirmative action by allocating specific positions for persons with disabilities in public institutions.
- Making public structures adaptable, taking into consideration the safety of persons with disabilities in the workplace.
- Enforcing tax deductions for all private companies hiring the services of persons with disabilities, as enshrined in the Sierra Leone Disability Act of 2011.
The Institute of Human Resources (iHRSL) asks employers about the recruitment and employment of people with disabilities.
To gain a better understanding of how employers view the recruitment and employment of people with disabilities in Sierra Leone, the Institute of Human Resources, Sierra Leone (iHRSL) surveyed a range of employers for International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
A spokesperson for the iHRSL said: “While increasing numbers of employers recognise the need to address gender disparities, disability is an area of diversity that is still seldom discussed.”
Over two/fifths employ staff with a disability
The results showed that over 44% of respondents have employees with a disability – mainly physical disabilities, learning and intellectual difficulties and hearing loss. However only a minority (7%) practice active inclusion.
The iHRSL spokesperson explained: “Employers can be wary about hiring individuals with disabilities. Many associate disability with under-performance or poor attendance. The cost of making adaptations to the workplace can also deter firms.”
Job performance, retention and attendance are key
The survey shows that over two-thirds of responding employers would be more confident about recruiting someone with a disability if they were confident that job performance, retention and attendance wouldn’t be affected. Reassurance that productivity would not be impacted is also a significant factor.
It is clear that disabled people who can work and want to work still face myriad barriers, even though Sierra Leone is making visible progress towards more inclusivity in employment, education, health care and daily life generally.
The iHRSL adds that with the right support employers could play an important role in breaking many of the other barriers and prejudices that individuals with disabilities face within Sierra Leone, saying that a fairer society benefits everyone, not just the most vulnerable.