In a lodge outside Nairobi, Kenya, 40 enthusiastic and bright young people with disabilities from 13 African countries came together last week to draft a constitution for a new organization they are forming, called the African Youth with Disabilities Network.
Among wheelchair users, sign language interpreters, and young people using various walking aides and other accommodations was 23-year-old student Seray Bangura from Sierra Leone, a country rebuilding after a devastating civil war. Seray is a coordinator for a disability advocacy group called Young Voices, a project of the UK-based Leonard Cheshire Disability charity. He is also in his final year of study at the Institute of Public Administration and Management in Freetown.
Seray is a member of the steering committee of the network, which was formed in May 2011 in response to a growing movement of young people with disabilities in Africa. Last week’s gathering kicked off with participants updating the group on progress made and challenges encountered in their home countries since they first met in May.
Seray noted some successes in Sierra Leone over past six months, achieved with the help of Young Voices, including the appointment of a young person with a disability to Sierra Leone’s National Youth Commission; regular radio talk shows focusing on disability issues and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; the creation of films about accessibility, education, and nondiscrimination; and the development of a university grant program for all students with disabilities.
Seray also noted, however, that the fight for disability rights in Sierra Leone is far from over. The country is ranked 148 out of 169 countries on the UN Human Development Index, and conservative estimates suggest that disabled people make up at least 10 percent of the population in the post-conflict nation. He lamented the lack of funding for disability issues in his country, and the fact that society still harbors negative perceptions of persons with disabilities. He also noted that implementation of the UNCRPD, which allows people with disabilities to fully realize their rights, is painfully slow.
Young people with disabilities in Africa continue to face enormous challenges. The meetings have allowed young people like Seray to gain new skills and learn about the process of creating a formal secretariat and establishing and managing a new, regionally, youth-focused disabled persons’ organization. Seray, along with others at the meeting, will continue their work to increase empowerment, mobilization, and coordination among disabled youth across Africa.
Both meetings were organized and hosted by the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa, the Open Society Disability Rights Initiative, and the Youth Initiative.