Findings and Conclusions
The photographs taken by the participants provide a striking illustration about what it means to live with a speech and hearing impairment for young people in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone is a very extreme context and it is hard to overstate the challenges that many people, not just those with disabilities, experience on a daily basis. From the perspective of a Western audience, the photographs provide a sense of immediacy and proximity that may not be possible through words alone. The photographers’ choice of subject matter gave an intimate insight into their worlds, and their explanations help to set the photographs in context. The participants were able to capture a closeness to the subjects and surroundings in their natural state, which would not necessarily have been possible if I, as an outsider, had taken the photos. Photography is an alternative way of generating knowledge, and this participatory photography project gave me, a foreigner without a disability, a greater comprehension of the local realities of young people with speech and hearing impairments in Sierra Leone. This helped to inform my understanding about the issues disability advocacy efforts need to address.
Children and young people with disabilities in Sierra Leone are regularly considered to be useless, and are often abandoned on the grounds that they will do nothing for their family but bring shame, bad luck or added expense. These photographs prove the opposite. These young people have agency, creativity, independence, and a desire to do well and work hard. Their reflections and commentary about their photographs they took reveal their level of maturity and understanding about the world around them. Though they often face many hardships to overcome, they do so with resilience and a great deal of potential. Like other young people, the participants navigate their own space in society. The photos tell a tale not just of challenges and hardships, but also one of agency and hope.
A major finding from the project was that the policy of inclusion is not always preferred by people with speech and hearing impairments. While people with disabilities in Sierra Leone are intentionally excluded because of stigma, this group is further excluded unintentionally, because many people do not know sign language and because of the lack of sign language in schools due to lack of state resources. Yet in almost all areas of their daily life, the young people with speech and hearing impairments prefer to spend time with other people who also have speech and hearing impairments, suggesting that they prefer exclusion in certain respects. This finding challenges the assumption that inclusion, as in “the state of being included” in mainstream society, should always be the main goal of the disability movement. As the project suggests, “inclusion” can mean something different to different groups. Disability rights activism would benefit from advocating for a broader form of “inclusion” that is about valuing all individuals and encompassing the different needs and wants of various disability groups.
The project also illustrated the intersectional dimension of disability, revealing how multiple layers of identity can work together to produce a distinct experience of marginalisation. This project focused on young people in Sierra Leone with speech and hearing impairments, showing how their age, nationality and particular type of disability intersect to create a unique situation of exclusion. Furthermore, the project also highlighted the gendered nature of disability, as girls with speech and hearing impairments are especially vulnerable on account of their gender. This often causes them to act in unexpected ways, such as having large families to disprove their asexuality or to create a financial safety net for themselves. Gendered disability advocacy must recognise the ways that age, gender, disability and other inequalities work together to define girls’ intersectional marginalisation within diverse, and often disabling, contexts.
The research process had empowering impacts on the participants, who became co-creators of knowledge in the research process. The young people enjoyed taking part in the project and this clearly came out in their photographs. They are rarely asked to be involved in initiatives like this and they seemed relieved and grateful that a visitor was taking interest in their life experiences. Since our meeting took place during their school holidays when they had a lot of free time, they appreciated having a project to focus on. They took the project seriously and put a great deal of thought and effort into it. Furthermore, this was the first time for all of them to use a camera, which was a novelty experience. At the end, they said they felt valued to be included. Simply the act of taking part in the project increased their self-esteem and demonstrated their value in a context where it is often overlooked.
The project also provoked positive reactions from the NGO itself. When the director saw me sitting down with them, he took me aside to personally thank me for including them in my research. When the staff saw their photos, the responses were overwhelmingly positive. The project demonstrated that the group of young people with speech and hearing impairments can be key players in the work of the NGO in more meaningful ways that go beyond superficial performances or passive observation. Since the project has ended, the NGO now works with them in more active ways, inviting them to play more leading roles at events, suggesting a greater recognition of their potential to actively contribute to the organisation’s advocacy work on disability rights. This outcome indicates that the participatory photography method can itself contribute to real change.
Advice for students
Participatory research methods are a useful and interesting way to conduct research in the field of social sciences, and can be seen as a tool for empowering marginalised groups whose voices tend to be ignored.
Research is about the production of knowledge, and this research shows that there are many other ways to produce knowledge aside from qualitative interviews and ethnography or quantitative statistical and numerical analysis. Participatory methods including photography, drawing, videos, mapping and so on provide an alternative way of gathering and displaying academic research. Photographs and other creative tools like videos and drawings can often say a lot more than words. The use of photographs, in combination with the participatory method, allows new forms of knowledge to be gained through the eyes of the subjects of research, and as such, this methodology can help to transform knowledge production in this field
This type of research is especially valuable among participants who cannot communicate in more normative ways, including children, people with speech and hearing impairments, people with mental health problems. It is also particularly beneficial when working with groups who might normally be excluded from the research process because of social, cultural or political norms.
It is always important to consider the ethical implications when conducting any form of research, and this is particularly so when undertaking participatory methods. Academics including Sime (2008) and Zenkov et al (2014) have discussed the ethical challenges in participatory photography, highlighting the risks that arise when researchers ask participants to enter their world through photography and share very personal and intimate stories. Research participants are individuals in their own right and not just objects in a research project. It is always important to take a step back and think about your positionality in a reflexive manner, in order to “do no harm”. In practical terms, always explain the full nature and purpose of your research and ensure you gain informed consent from the participants with signed forms. In the case of participatory photography, you need to remember that the authorship of these photos lies with the photographer, not the researcher. Furthermore, where photographs might be shared publicly, consent will also need to be gained from the subjects who appear in the photos.