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Disability in Africa

BBC. Facts, Information and Comment about Disability in Africa

. (BBC’s Worlds of Difference Series. Brown, R. & Bell, N. [eds.]. World Service Education, Room 219 SE, Bush House, Strand, London WC2B4PH, England.)



(Download Facts, Information & Comment overview as a PDF)

This supplement of the BBC Focus on Africa Magazine (1998, April/June) should be ordered by anyone interested. Its pictures and graphs are helpful in portraying the human dimensions of disabilities in Africa.



  • One in every 12 people in Africa is disabled.
  • Eight percent of Africans have an impairment.
  • That amounts to about 50 million disabled Africans.
  • About 10% of the world’s population suffers an impairment.

  • That amounts to 500 million persons worldwide.



This information is found in UNESCO, 1995 Report:

Mobility impairment


Severe intellectual impairment


Hearing impairment


Visual Impairment









This information is found in UNESCO, 1995 Report:



Congenital diseases


Non-infectious diseases


Accident or war


Infectious diseases


Other, including aging



Malnutrition, diseases such as AIDS and poor birthing methods are all common causes of disabling impairments in Africa. For example, a pregnant woman whose diet lacks vitamin A can give birth to a child who is blind, or a child who contracts poliomyelitis can have difficulty moving and walking. War, road accidents and unsafe work places account for many disabling impairments such as damaged or lost limbs. Genetic factors can also result in a person being born disabled with Down’s Syndrome for example.


In theory, many disabling impairments are preventable. Improved diets, immunization and medical intervention can all help to prevent certain impairments from occurring. But in Africa, as elsewhere in the world, poverty and disease and the risk of injury are largely unavoidable. Disability is therefore a part of life.




These terms vary from country to country:

  • Impairment. The loss or lack of physical or mental function.
  • Disability. The disadvantage or restriction of activity resulting from an impairment and from society’s failure to take account of that impairment.
  • Disabled people. People with sensory, intellectual or physical impairments or with mental or health difficulties.
  • Handicap. An alternative word for impairment and/or disability. Used less in recent years in English but still common in French.
  • Rehabilitation. Support for disabled people from society—e.g., education, training, aids and equipment.
  • Segregation. Separating disabled people from society—e.g., in an institution.

  • Integration. The opposite of segregation—being a full member of society.



Tribal and religious beliefs strongly influence the way disabled people are viewed. A disabled child in a family is sometimes thought of as a punishment from the gods for the sins of the ancestors. Disabled people can be thought of as bad omens and be rejected or abandoned. In parts of Zambia and Tanzania for example, pregnant women try to avoid seeing people with albinism for fear of giving birth to an albino child.


Disabled people are often viewed as unproductive or even useless. Many men are reluctant to marry a disabled woman. Disabled people are mocked and abused. Disabled women and children are much more likely to be abused and suffer violence than non-disabled women and children. The subject of disability is usually ignored by the media.



  • Teachers have refused to teach disabled children.
  • Disabled villagers have been refused help by their community.
  • Employers have refused to employ disabled people.
  • Disabled people have been denied food and shelter, family life and relationships.

  • Disabled people have been abandoned in institutions.



  • Negative attitudes towards disabled people in a community.
  • Lack of enforced laws and policies relating to disability and equal opportunties.
  • Barriers caused by the natural and built environment.

  • Inadequate services and lack of information appropriate for disabled people.




Lacking high priority for scarce governmental funding, disabled services often come from charitable organizations who have failed to bring disabled people into decision-making positions. The success of other rights movements has spurred the disabled to organize themselves.

  • Hearing impaired in Cape Town, South Africa, took to the streets with signs that read, "I’m proud of my language: Sign Language."
  • From his wheel chair, Khalfan Khalfan trained and worked as a teacher and the founded Umoja Walamavu (UWZ), The Association of Disabled People of Zanzibar.
  • Uganda leads the way with its National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (NUDIPU) an umbrella association for organizations for the blind, the deaf, and others. Uganda’s constitution provides five seats for disabled members of Parliament. Eliphaz Mazima was the only disabled delegate to the constitutional assembly. Alex Ndeezi

  • is a Member of Parliament who communicates in sign language and defends deaf and other disabled persons as the poorest of the poor and pushes for equal education.



  • Get disabled people in your area enthused and involved.
  • Ensure that the organization is representative and democratic.
  • Network with established organizations of disabled people.
  • Persist in the face of bureaucratic obstacles.
  • Win over and work constructively with local and national governments.

  • Insist that ultimate responsibility for service delivery lies with the government.



  • Influenced policy makers to pass legislation and support programs for disabled people’s rights and integration.
  • Helped to raise status of disabled people, highlighting the inequality which disabled people face.
  • Shown appropriate ways in which equality of opportunity can be achieved.
  • Been actively involved in the formation of constitutions.

  • Have helped to elect disabled Members of Parliament.



When I was fourteen, I was an apprentice to a corn mill operator. One afternoon after school an accident occurred. Four fingers from my right hand were severed away leaving only my thumb. Afterwards I was embarrassed and resorted to walking with my hand in my pocket but this is considered arrogant in Ghanaian society. People also take offense when you use your left hand to give or receive something. But when I use my damaged hand people get scared and women sometimes scream. I dread shaking hands with people.
—Timothy Burkari, Ghana

I am the only son in a family of six children but I am losing my position in the family because I am disabled. I am 20 but my younger sisters treat me like a child. My youngest sister is only six but because she sometimes helps me dress and eat, she speaks to me as my elder.
—Baba Hakim Sheriff, Freetown, Sierra Leone

I am a teacher who is 90% blind from glaucoma. I also write novels. My saddest moments are when someone takes advantage of my disability. Some come to my room as friends only to take away my property without me knowing. My happiest moments are when I am in the midst of people who do not pity me and who feel I am a human being like them.
—Alex Ofojebe, Aguata, Nigeria


I am writing you about a girl called Demeketch from a remote part of Ethiopia. She is totally blind from measles and spends her time sewing embroidered household materials out of straw. Everyone is amazed by her beautiful items which are very popular. Demeketch survives using her unbelievable skills instead of begging at the church gates. This highlights the battle against pity of disability by African young people.
—Mesfin Fideyesus, Dessie, Ethiopia



  1. What most impressed or enlightened you in this article? Do you have questions about any of the above? Is there anything with which you disagreed? Why?
  2. What from this article would you like to discuss further?
  3. What kind of feelings do many non-disabled people have toward those with impairments? Why do you think this is so? How can non-disabled persons ever get to know what a blind or deaf or person confined to a wheel chair thinks and feels?
  4. Who is your closest disabled friend? Or, if you are disabled, who is your closest non-disabled friend? How much can you share about your differences and deepest feelings? If you are not disabled, do you think you need a disabled friend?
  5. What negative attitudes or obstacles do disabled persons face in your community? Which of these could be removed? How could you begin to do so?

  1. Who in the world does NOT need to read this article?



  1. This article really speaks for itself in terms of its importance and the neglect shown to those with any kind of impairment. We can thank the BBC for providing us with this vital information. It is important for every community in the world.
  2. Many people who live with impairments are forced to live in subcultures (the deaf for instance) or in isolation. Very little youth work is going on in these subcultures or with those who need to be integrated into the mainstream of youth culture.
  3. We need more Models of Programs for the various disabled groups.

  1. Most important, we all as individuals, and our communities and churches need to understand how we need the full humanity beautifully manifested in those with disabilities.

Dean Borgman cCYS