Can Paralympic sport break down barriers to assistive technology use in Africa?
What does assistive technology mean for people with disabilities? Why do only 15% of people who need assistive technologies (AT) in parts of Africa have access to them?
As a person with a disability, and a former wheelchair tennis player and London 2012 Paralympian from Zimbabwe, AT has been critical in my daily life and my sporting career. Earlier this year, I took part in a panel discussion about Para sport and AT during the Knowledge Exchange Forum for the Para Sport against Stigma (PSAS) project. PSAS is an innovative project that looks at how representation, education and communication through Para sport can break down barriers to stigma to support access and adoption of AT.
During the panel, we discussed what AT means, and how certain devices and equipment are key for persons with disabilities for their independence. AT is fundamental for persons with disabilities to access areas like education, employment, health services as well as many other rights. In parts of Africa, however, there is a serious lack of access to AT. High cost and unavailability seem to be the major barriers as a lot of AT and equipment is imported from outside the continent and therefore becomes unaffordable to many persons with disabilities.
In addition, there are also socio-cultural issues which become barriers to AT adoption, such as the stigma around disability in a lot of communities on the continent. This was a key aspect of the discussions was exploring the role that Para sport could play in breaking down barriers to the adoption of AT on the African continent.
Below, I share my reflections and experiences on this topic, drawing on comments from two fellow Para athletes from Ghana; Stacy and Patrick.
Stigma as a barrier to AT adoption in Africa
Stigma often leads to poor standard of living for persons with disabilities because of the exclusion in many aspects of life in society such as education, employment, and access to health care that follows it.
As Stacey noted, “People think we are slow in everything we do, especially when working with person living with disability and it results to unemployment”.
I feel that stigma is, in part, caused by a lack of understanding of something and depending on the conversations taking place on the issue in a community, false knowledge can be created and propagated on the group of people, such as the association of disability with witchcraft and evil.
Or as Patrick explained:
“From the past, Persons with disabilities have been demonized and discriminated against so much so that people have no zeal to even want to use AT. The Stigma that we face even limits the willingness of certain individuals to even engage Persons with disabilities. Many of our leaders have little or no knowledge about the need for inclusion of Persons with disabilities and thus they do not even back laws to ensure steps are taken to improve the quality of life for persons with disabilities in terms of even education, sports, etc.”
For me, efforts to increase the adoption of AT by persons with disabilities in Africa must deal with the stigma, and a key part of that is educating society to better understand disability, its causes as well as the needs of persons with disabilities. Closing this knowledge gap is a crucial step because a society that is aware of and is educated on disability issues could be more open, receptive to, and support efforts to provide access to AT for persons with disabilities as society would better understand.
In other words, whether a community has enough resources or not, will not make much of a difference in efforts to increase access to AT for persons with disabilities if its people do not see persons with disabilities as equal members of society. This is because decisions on the allocation of resources to strategic priorities and who benefits are made by people in the community and therefore their understanding of disability is crucial.
Reaching this desirable state is far easier said than done, due to the complexity of the subject. However, no effort is too small, and we must use every platform available to push this agenda, and Para sport has a role to play in that.
Para sport as a tool for tackling stigma
The free to air broadcasting of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games to at least 49 territories in Africa is an important step in ending disability stigma and help promote human rights for persons with disabilities across the continent. Media coverage of the Paralympic Games and other Para sport events puts persons with disabilities in the limelight, with a focus on their abilities, rather than disability and seeing home-grown athletes doing well in international events creates local heroes making it relatable for local communities, something I experienced as a Para athlete. Visibility increases awareness, potentially raising curiosity to learn more and understand disability and the needs of persons with disabilities. This has the potential to positively change societal perspectives on disability.
Para sport also has a more direct impact on the adoption of AT in Africa. Many persons with disabilities have no access to AT needed in their daily lives, let alone sport AT and for a privileged few, sport has enabled us to access both, as Stacy pointed out
“Prothesis has been my source of helper, my prothesis helps me to walk, do things on my own without depending on someone. I remember when I wasn’t with my prothesis things were different, I couldn't go to school or do better things for myself. I got my prothesis through Ghana Wheelchair Tennis, it was given to me by our national coordinator”
Para sport also provides a platform to network, share knowledge and experiences as well as learn from others, or as Patrick said:
“I got my amputation following a car accident. So, my first chair was from hospital. I had very little knowledge about Wheelchair usage and maintenance. I struggled with basic tyre punctures etc... until I joined Para sports which brought me in contact with other Wheelchair users who had deep expertise in the usage, maintenance and repairs of Wheelchairs and encouraged me to learn from them.”
For me, the networks I developed through sport enabled me to get more advanced and a custom-built wheelchair which I use daily to get around in my life and that has had immense positive impact in the way I look at myself and how I live my life. The increase in independence and confidence that comes with using my piece of AT, in turn influences the way society looks at me and hopefully challenges their views about disability. While this is just a drop in the ocean, I believe that if more persons with disabilities could have access to the AT they need, collectively, the impact would be bigger.
From a persons with disabilities perspective, there is no doubt therefore, on the urgent need to address the challenges faced by persons with disabilities in Africa and increase access to AT. Although Para sport can play a crucial role in this regard, its reach is currently very limited because only a few persons with disabilities have access to sport, in the first place and beyond access, affordability and long-term sustainability should be key considerations in any solutions.
Para Sport against Stigma is a collaboration between partners brought together by Global Disability Innovation Hub, Loughborough University London, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), University of Malawi, and the global law firm Hogan Lovells.
It is part of the world’s largest Assistive Technology programme, AT2030, a £20 million initiative led by Global Disability Innovation Hub, to increase the availability of assistive technology by testing “what works,” and reach 15 million people.
We would like to thank Nyasha Mharakurwa, Stacy Konadu Mensah and Patrick Yaw Obeng for writing this blog.
Nyasha Mharakurwa is wheelchair tennis player and London 2012 Paralympian from Zimbabwe. Currently he works at the International Paralympic Committee as Membership Programmes Co-ordinator and is part of the team delivering Para Sport Against Stigma.
Stacy Konadu Mensah is a wheelchair tennis player from Ghana.
Patrick Yaw Obeng completes in Para athletics and has won multiple medals for Ghana at the All-African Games.