When Ramatu lost her speech and hearing ability, she soon became perceived as “a disabled child”. In Sierra Leone, as in much of Africa, disability is associated with extremely negative connotations. Many believe that a child with a disability is a curse on the family, sent by the devil to punish parents for their bad behaviour. Many babies have been left in the forests because their families think they are evil, and so they should be returned back to the evil spirits from where they came. The shame and stigma surrounding Ramatu’s impairment was too much to bear for her father, who became extremely angry and disappointed with Ramatu. Yet her mother continued to love and support her daughter, and remains close to her, caring for her until this day. Families make a huge difference in the lives of children with disabilities and how they perceive themselves. Her father’s rage caused the marriage to suffer, and he left the rest of the family. Ramatu, her mother, her aunt and her siblings moved to Freetown shortly afterwards, in search of a better life. Ramatu’s mother takes great care of her and her siblings, and she encourages her to go to school and take her education seriously. However, since her mother is not able to “sign”, she and Ramatu cannot always communicate and understand each other directly. This photo was taken by Ramatu, showing her mother, cousin and sister asleep.
Since many children with speech and hearing impairments never attend school, they do not know how to read or write. UNESCO estimates that 99% of girls with a disability in developing countries cannot read or write (UN 2011). American Sign Language (ASL) has overtaken the various different ethnic forms of sign languages in Sierra Leone and is now the most commonly used form of sign language in much of Africa. However, there are very few sign language interpreters or teachers due to lack of government funding and job opportunities. The girl in this photograph has a speech and hearing impairment. Not only is she unable to talk or hear, she is also unable to read and write, and she does not know sign language. In this situation, her ability to communicate with others around her is severely limited. Although this might seem like an extremely lonely and isolating experience, people with disabilities do not usually express that this is the case, since they have never known anything different.
Sierra Leone has signed up to a multitude of international conventions to protect the rights and dignity of people with disabilities, and these treaties have been domesticated into national legislation. On paper, the rights of people with disabilities are guaranteed, including their entitlement to free medical care. However, this ruling is rarely adhered to in practice, and people with disabilities are subjected to high costs of medical treatment like the rest of the population. Although this group suffers from illness to a greater extent than others, including in the case of Ebola, when they were 10 times more likely to catch the disease than people without disabilities, their higher rates of poverty usually mean that they are less able to afford medical treatment and the basic drugs needed for recovery. When this photograph was taken by Ramatu, this girl – her neighbour – had been suffering from an illness for several weeks but could not afford to go to the hospital. Since then, the girl has sadly passed away.