Meet the activists
'Disabled people are citizens like everyone else'
To create our ‘Can you see what’s holding me back?” video, we worked with disability leaders in Zambia, Bangladesh and Senegal. The script was collaboratively created, and the participants speak powerfully about some of the barriers they face in claiming their rights to education, employment and political participation, as well as the right to live free from discrimination and persecution. We’re incredibly grateful to Josephine, Dame, Jannatul, John, Sanou and Reya for contributing their time and experiences to the project – read on to find out a bit more about them.
Josephine is a disability and human rights advocate and activist. She has had a physical disability since the age of three, and one of her sons also has a disability. Josephine was a teacher for 12 years but left to join the disability cause – since then, she has held a variety of senior positions with disability organisations in Zambia. Josephine also works as a life coach. She sums up her approach to life like this: “When you live your life in alignment with a purpose that is centred on selflessly adding value for others, opportunities become abundant and your life becomes fulfilled.”
Photo © Sightsavers/Michael Duff
Dame is a municipal officer in the Dakar suburb of Pikine, as well as being president of the Association of People with Physical Disabilities. He has fought hard to hold these positions, and he’s now a candidate for local councillor in the 2022 local elections. He has been a key person in many national campaigns fighting for inclusion, including activity focused on COVID-19 vaccine equity, and ratification of the Marrakesh treaty (which aims to make printed materials accessible to people who are visually impaired or otherwise print-disabled). He’s also heavily engaged in Sightsavers’ political participation project in Senegal.
“Sometimes, when I go to public places and I have to pass through high areas or even climb floors, I have a lot of problems,” Dame says. “I wouldn’t say that it’s only me who experiences it, but rather many disabled people. What I want to say to our decision-makers is that a person can only be disabled when faced with a situation, but it’s not… that his or her disability is a barrier. That’s why they have to understand that disabled people are citizens like everyone else. They have to integrate us in all their activities and as the elections are coming soon, they should add us to the electoral lists so that disabled people have a voice. The importance of this inclusion is that it will not underestimate any citizen.”
“This will allow people with disabilities to participate in decision-making and to enjoy all their rights,” he continues. “My message to the authorities is that this day [International Day of People with Disabilities] belongs to them as much as to us, so we ask them to support us and to be present so that there is a communion between disabled people. If there is no one to represent them, they might be forgotten in the decision-making process. But if a disabled person is present, he or she can give his or her opinion when decisions are made and give his or her vision, whether it is about disabled people or about many other things.”
Photo © Sightsavers/Reza Shahriar Rahman
Jannatul was born with a physical disability affecting her legs. She moves around by crawling and has faced a lot of challenges, including living in a flood-prone area which further limits her mobility. Despite the barriers Jannatul has faced, her personal dedication and support from her parents have helped her continue her studies and she’s now in the last year of her master’s degree. She wants to become a successful businesswoman and believes achieving her goal and gaining financial independence will make her hardships fade away. In the future, Jannatul dreams of supporting other people with disabilities.
“I faced many problems as I was disabled form birth,” Jannatul says. “I faced difficulties getting educated, because there was not a proper transport system for me. I couldn’t play like others. [But] with my parents support and because of my dedication I was able to continue my education.”
“I have tried for jobs but faced many difficulties, maybe because of my disability,” she continues. “That’s why I decided to go for business instead of looking for a job. I got training from Sightsavers under the Inclusive Futures programme at Access Bangladesh Foundation – I learned a lot from that. I also got this tricycle, and the project is supporting me to run my business. I’m opening a tailoring shop. We disabled persons, we face many difficulties everyday. That’s why I want [the government to] develop a system for disabled persons, so that they could travel and get an education and prosper in life – and also get proper health services and get access to the COVID-19 vaccine. I want the government to preserve the rights of people with disabilities. Our right to access food, transport, education; these things need to be ensured.”
Photo © Sightsavers/Jason Mulikita
John is president of the Albinism Foundation of Zambia. He’s a tireless advocate for disability rights and as well as being an activist, is also a successful musician who makes music aimed at spreading messages of inclusion.
In a previous interview for the Equal World campaign, John outlined some of the threats facing people with albinism in Zambia, who are targeted for kidnapping and murder because of a superstitious belief that their body parts have magical properties. “When someone wants to get rich, have political power, boost their business, or cure certain incurable diseases,” he told us, “they consult a witch doctor and are told to bring certain body parts. They may be told to bring two hands, two legs. They may be told to bring a heart. And people with albinism are targeted for these body parts. This is why we are afraid in the albinism community, because we are targeted. They believe that our body parts have got special powers if they are mixed with rituals and magic.
Photo © Sightsavers/Michael Duff
Sanou, who has a visual impairment, is deputy treasurer of the Federation of Associations of Persons with Disabilities. She is a member of the National Union of the Blind of Senegal and is also the president of the former residents of the National Institute for the Education and Training of Blind Youth. She has participated in Sightsavers’ inclusion project since 2011 and has benefited from several capacity building sessions. Sanou is very active in defending disability rights and has participated in campaigns on issues including ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty and equal access to COVID-19 vaccines for people with disabilities.
“I really wish that disabled people like me were given the opportunity to be independent,” she says. “If they are educated… they will get out of these barriers of disability. We should unite and set up associations, organise meetings and raise awareness so that [people with disabilities] can make up their minds and become members of political parties – to be known and to unite with the leaders of their locality in order to emancipate themselves. A disabled person must go out in their locality to integrate and eliminate the barriers of underestimation.”
Photo © Sightsavers/Reza Shahriar Rahman
Reya is a young woman of short stature. Throughout her life, she and her family have experienced a lot of stigma and discrimination. She was told she would not be able to study and has also been told that her only option for earning money would be begging. But Reya’s determined; and with strong support from her parents, she’s now on course to graduate from the National University of Bangladesh. After graduation she aims to find a job and become self-dependent and successful. Reya dreams of a society where people with disabilities are treated equally and where society will accept and include people with disabilities positively.
“My parents took care of me and helped me grow,” Reya says. “But because of my disability my relatives and neighbours have passed many bad comments. But my parents never neglected me. They tried as much as they could to get me educated and taught me etiquette; taught me how to respect others. I faced many difficulties in my life, but through many hardships, I thought of only one thing: if other people can overcome any obstacle, why would I stop at any obstacle? I did not want to stop because I’m disabled.”
“I truly feel proud as I overcame the obstacles,” she continues, “so that I became a self-reliant woman and got educated. I want a job according to my qualifications and abilities, so that everyone respects me. On the International Day of People with Disabilities, I wish that no person with a disability gets deprived of their rights. In society women with disabilities get harassed in many ways. They get disrespected or they get raped. I want nothing [bad to] happen to them, so we all can come forward and help each other. I wish that all people with disabilities get their rights, so that we can all walk together.”