In Sierra Leone, 70% of young people are unemployed or underemployed. For people with disabilities, the situation is even more severe. Due to their exclusion from school at an early age, and widespread discrimination in society, people with disabilities have very few economic opportunities and are rarely in employment. In this desperate situation, many turn to begging on the streets of Freetown as their only means of survival. Others find low-paid work to help them get by. This photograph was taken by Sawaneh at 3am in Western Freetown, at his place of work. Needing a group of people to help clear the area of waste products through the night after every day at the market, a business owner had the idea to employ young people with speech and hearing impairments. A group of about ten young men come here every night to load, lift and transport containers of waste before the morning. Sawaneh says the containers are extremely heavy and carrying them can cause pain in his back. For each container they transport, the boys receive 500 SLL ($0.07). He enjoys being around his friends, but the work is exhausting. They work in silence, so there are fewer complaints from neighbouring homes. The boy in this photograph is a friend of Sawaneh.
According to UNESCO, 98% of children with disabilities in developing countries do not attend school (UN 2011). In Sierra Leone, there is a National School for the Deaf, but this free education only reaches up to primary level; there are no government-funded schools for children with speech and hearing impairments after primary level, and there is no state funding for interpreters at any secondary schools in the country. A small number of young people with speech and hearing impairments attend secondary school, but they struggle because they do not understand what the teacher is saying. Sawaneh needs his friends to help him by writing down what the teacher says, or he gets very confused and unsure what is going on. Most young people with speech and hearing impairments drop out of school. National disability advocacy groups like the Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues (SLUDI) advocate for a policy of inclusion for all people with disabilities in areas like politics, employment and education. However, because the young people with speech and hearing impairments have different ways of communicating, they are strongly opposed to the policy of inclusion. Instead, they prefer to be in environment with other people with speech and hearing impairments so they can communicate together without being required to “normalise” and adapt to surroundings which prioritise speech and hearing as the dominant way of communication. The boys in this photograph all have speech and hearing impairments. They do not attend school. Most days, they play together at the beach, swimming in the sea and playing sports like football.
Internal human trafficking is a major problem in Sierra Leone. There are many stories from the districts of people offering poor families to take their child to Freetown for a small price. They claim that they will send their child to school and open up more opportunities for the child to prosper. In most cases, however, the child is never sent to school and is used by the “guardian” to sell on the streets. These offers are particularly appealing to the families of children with disabilities. When a child is born with a disability, it can create a huge amount of concern to the family who worry how they will be able to care for the child financially. This young woman with a speech and hearing impairment found herself in this situation. She has been living on the streets since she was brought to Freetown as a “pickin” (child) and has since worked as a sex worker, selling her body to men to earn enough money for food. Sexual violence is a widespread problem in Sierra Leone and affects the lives of young women with disabilities, including those with speech and hearing impairments, to a greater extent. As one girl with a physical disability said, “Some men think, since this person is a disabled, she will not be able to fight me. So they just come in and go away”. Disability is a very gendered experience, because living with a disability impacts and exacerbates issues of sexual violence and reproduction for many young women in Sierra Leone.