Visible, yet unseen: Peter lost amid a crowd
It’s a bright, sunny, and busy morning in my city. I set out for the commercial street, a busy arena with people doing all types of businesses. It’s a Saturday and like many other Saturdays, everyone wants to do some shopping. Driving through the broken streets inundated with deep potholes, I realized the streets were abnormally void of motorbikes, a common transportation means for the people in my city.
Only then did it dawn on me that it was one of the days with clamp down and restriction of the circulation of motorbikes as part of the implementation of law decreed by my city Administrators to curb the circulation of commercial and private motorbikes within the urban truncate of the city roads, a decision that came after crimes were linked to motorbike owners. Consequently, the roads were busy with people walking and others waiting for hours under the scorching sun to get a taxi. Taxis on this particular day proved to be limited as compared to the number of people in high demand.
As I meandered my way through, I got desperate waves from a group of three women. I could see the frustration on their faces, their exhaustion, and their visible unspoken plea for me to offer them a lift. Being a crisis-stricken region, there is usually the fear to give strangers lifts because people have lost their lives and others their cars because of such acts of kindness. I however harkened to my heart and stopped. They streamed into the car at all speed as though they thought I could change my mind and drive away.
They started with lots of appreciation for the help. They narrated how another man had stopped to help them but his wife refused and he drove away. I could hear the relief in their voices as they revealed the several kilometers they had already trekked and their feet were sore. When I enquired about their destinations, they were diverse, but at least one was heading to mine. I dropped them off and the heartwarming words of thanks were endless. At least I had my three angels bless me on that day.
My transactions were fast, and on my way back, I met a trekking colleague and stopped to give him a lift. Behold, another woman got into my car before she could even ask for help and mention her destination. She had a baby. I told her where I was going and she greatly thanked me because I would have shortened her distance which she could complete by trekking. She was going to a hospital with her child.
Given the unbearable traffic on the road this day, I realized she will complete the remaining short distance and I left her around my office as she rendered her words of thanks. Yes, bikes were absent, but the traffic in busy areas was overwhelming.
The town before this day had experienced days of lockdown in retaliation for the decision to restrict the perimeters of the circulation of motorbikes. As the first day to come out of the one-week lockdown to purchase food and store for another impending lockdown week ahead, it appeared all houses had emptied their occupants into the streets. It also appeared all cars that may have been off the streets were rejuvenated and brought into the streets. It also looked as though all suppliers of provision items from out of the city had their supply trucks stream into the city this blessed morning. Travel agencies too had their buses arriving from other cities.
While there were people who could trek to their respective destinations, and others begged to get lifts and succeeded, there was yet another group of people who got stranded amid people, under the scorching sun, unable to walk, and ignored by most of the motorists, taxi drivers inclusive. They had money, proposed high rates to pay but no one seemed to look their way.
One of such people was Peter (not his real name) who lives with a disability. I immediately spotted him in front of my office and his mood attracted my attention. I got closer to inquire what was causing him distress. He had a long story. While living with a disability, Peter also has a health condition. He is hypertensive. Peter had experienced a malaise during the week but could not go to the hospital because of the lockdown. Though he succeeded to come to the hospital on this day, there was a bigger challenge for him on how to go back home. He had proposed double and even triple rates to no avail. Sitting in his wheelchair under the sun, he already looked dejected and hopeless. He had missed his medication too and was hungry.
The intervention of my team rescued Peter from the situation as he successfully boarded a taxi to drop him off. The taxi driver whose destination was in an opposite direction was kind enough to accept. This was coupled with the understanding of the passengers and Peter could get home. It was such a timely intervention because less than an hour of leaving the street, the scorching sun was unexpectedly replaced by thunderous rainfall.
The rain fell as though it was angry about an undisclosed reason. It spoiled the day, it got many people soaking wet, and it introduced yet another gloomy afternoon to oblige people to stay indoors even if they planned to go out. But the good thing is that Peter would have been home by this time.
Before the “unpopular” decision to restrict the circulation of motorbikes, Peter like many other people with disabilities could easily get transported through this means of transport. They will be carried from their homes in the communities which are mostly inaccessible to taxis and taken to the health facilities. But from this day, access to city centers was rendered difficult. While few riders can be courageous enough to render this service and explain at checkpoints that their passengers needed this ride, many others prefer not to get involved. The victims are left unattended and their stress levels increase. It is obvious that challenges already faced by persons with disabilities in accessing healthcare and other services are enormous and their needs are not usually met as expected. Weather persons with disabilities and other incapacitated and vulnerable groups are taken into consideration when laws are decreed and implemented will be a story for another day.
Challenges in accessing healthcare
Chic Sama is a Coordinator of the Coordination Unit of the Association of Persons with Disabilities (CUAPWD). He makes a litany of challenges faced by people with disabilities in accessing healthcare. According to him, Persons with Disabilities need a proper transport system to access the hospital since they are not usually strong enough to walk to health facilities. Unfortunately, the transport system in Cameroon has not been adapted to cater to their needs. Taxi drivers avoid transporting Persons with Disabilities even when they have the double fare. To him, the Government can salvage this situation by making Disability Inclusion part of the course in Driving Training Institutions. This will help drivers to understand transport signs for Persons with Disabilities and also know the part they can play to assist them when in need. The sensitization of disability signs and symbols will make road usage friendly for everyone. Taxi drivers will also be able to better understand people with disabilities and their assistive devices to pay more attention to them. The general public has also to be of help, although this is not always the case. This is compounded by their lack of knowledge on the needs of persons with disabilities and ways of communicating with them. If they do, they will not consider Persons with Disabilities as objects or a waste of time, especially by the taxi drivers. Though sensitization has been greatly done by the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services’ Services for Persons with Disabilities, Organizations focused on child abuse, much still needs to be done. The Healthcare Department in the country also needs training on Social Services to have specialized skills in things like Sign Language Interpretation, understanding Braille, and other accessible methods of communication. Health campaigns also need to be inclusive to ensure that everyone is involved. Transportation challenges in Peter’s case are key but there are other innumerable challenges. In any crisis,
A CRY FOR HELP
Sitting in my office this blessed morning came a call from an unknown number. It was the voice of a soft-spoken lady. Her voice was calm but filled with emotions. She did not know me, yet she told me much about herself, starting from her family situation, her condition, and her livelihood. She was so open to a stranger. Yes, she needed to express her situation to someone and she seized the opportunity when it presented itself. My institution the CBC Health Services under its Empowerment and Disability Inclusive Development Program had just launched a project called Rehabilitation Compass for Inclusion for the training of Physiotherapists, Community Based rehabilitation workers, and Occupational Therapists. My telephone number was used during the launch and that is how Kathy got my contact. Like someone in desperate need, she contacted for help.
Kathy is an orphan with a profound disability that limits her mobility. She suffered from Meningitis over 15 years ago. In her situation, Kathy thought it was over for her but her light shone again when she fell in love and got married in a union that was blessed with a daughter. Their child was just a year old when her husband was a victim of the socio-political crisis in the Northwest Region of Cameroon. He lost his life in 2017 through gunshots in Batibo, one of the villages in the Northwest Region of Cameroon. Kathy luckily escaped from this community with her daughter and now resides in her parent’s house in Ntantru, a quarter in Bamenda the capital city of the Region. Since the death of her husband, life for Kathy has not been the same as she tries alone to support her 5-year-old daughter in education. To achieve this, she tries to sell provisions in her community though with limited capital. Consequently, she is unable to single-handedly support her beloved daughter to go through education. As a mother who passionately loves her daughter and wants a better future for her, she appeals for help. She has received help from her local church and greatly appreciates their support, yet, it is not enough and she feels she needs help from other sources. Quizzed on whether she receives assistance from elsewhere, Kathy says the church groups have been her only savior.
This support has however not been able to sustain Kathy. Her call was for me to assist her receive the help that can enable her to have a livelihood, educate her daughter. Yes, her CRY FOR HELP was evident in her emotional voice. I could barely hold back my tears when I heard her story. The pathetic story of a person with a disability who struggles by herself for a life in a crisis. That is just a picture of what many people with disabilities suffer in the crisis plaguing the Northwest and Southwest Regions of Cameroon. Many have lost their lives, some raped, and above all, they happen to be the missing group during humanitarian assistance. They are left to fend for themselves.
To know more about Kathy, I worked together with the Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) Fieldworker of the Socio-Economic Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities within the CBC Health Services to contact her. Unfortunately, Kathy’s new abode is also in a very risky zone with frequent gunshots. The CBR worker postponed his visits to Kathy twice because of gunshots. Consequently, and given the zeal to immediately engage working with her we invited her over. Behold, Kathy accepted to visit us in our office. This option was better because strangers are usually targets but indigenes can manage to go in and out of these communities unharmed, although they can become victims of stray bullets.
Meeting Kathy was a great pleasure. She was also very happy to finally meet me. Her first words were “My friend, finally, we have met each other physically”. Her smile and joy melted my heart. We exchanged like good friends and discussed business at the same time. Our business was to have a proper needs assessment for Kathy and help her in her need as necessary and as possible.
Kathy’s story is an unfolding story. It however paints a picture of many people with disabilities who suffer the consequences of the crisis without much-needed help. To compound things, they are not intentionally considered during Humanitarian Assistance. They struggle for their survival. While a few can make these contacts and seek help, many more only pray for help to locate them someday.
The CBC Health Services is one of the institutions in Cameroon with Services for Persons with Disabilities duped the Socio-Economic Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities and the Empowerment and Disability Inclusive Development programs. Recently, the institution also launched some projects: Disability Inclusive Humanitarian Assistance, Inclusive Eye Health for Persons with Disabilities in the context of COVID-19, and the Comprehensive Child Response project. These projects are implemented with funds from international funding partners like the CBM, Liliane Foundation, AFAS Foundation, and UNICEF. With these funds, the needs of persons with disabilities and children in a crisis are catered for.
While the needs of persons with disabilities and children in a crisis are being identified and interventions planned, there remains a huge gap.
Situation of Persons with Disabilities in Cameroon
According to reports from the Socio-Economic Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities of the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services, information gathered states that all around the world, over a billion people about 15% of the world population has some form of disability which means that between 110 million (2.2%) and 190 million (3.9%) adults from 15 years and above have significant difficulties. Between 35% and 50% of people in developed countries and 70% and 80% in developing countries with a disability, disorders do not receive needed treatment. About 80% of PWDs live in developing countries especially in Asia and Africa, 20% (1 in 5) of the poorest people in developing countries have disabilities and it is mostly in the parts of sub-Saharan Africa with countries like Sudan, Zimbabwe about 16 % have access to healthcare services because of the policies and little information about disability in different countries (WHO, 2014). In Cameroon, over 3,750,000 people are living with disabilities (15%) it is estimated that 150 million children under 8 years live with disabilities and have no access to healthcare (UNICEF,2005). Article 25 of the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities reinforces the right of persons with disabilities to attain the highest standard of healthcare without discrimination. However, daily, People with disabilities face numerous challenges to access healthcare, even when the services are readily available. This is due sometimes to transportation challenges.
Remote-wide, access to health care amidst PWDs seems to be different across countries. Mostly depends on many things like income (Livelihood) and commitment of the service providers. PWD lay behind other citizens in accessing health care (Rimmer et al.2004), particularly in low middle-income countries especially in Africa and Asia where there is a big wide access gap between themselves (an action on disability and development) Peter et al (2008), WHO, (2013) shows that the factors that limit PWDs access to health care range from physical proximity in terms of transport that is when the transportation to the health center is not clear or the victim/himself cannot afford to have a safe transportation assistive device to the health facility or it can be due to physical structure of the health facility, whose construction may limit the mobility of the persons to access the services. The way some healthcare facilities are constructed may also limit the mobility of the persons to access the services needed for their health. Drainini et al. (2006), PWDs experience multiple barriers to obtaining healthcare, and barriers seem to be more profound for some types of healthcare than others. They include lack of adaptive equipment and inaccessibility for patients with disabilities, the environment of patients with disabilities, inability to have time for patients. With speech and hearing difficulties as the health workers lack connectivity with those with hearing impairment, no information about where to refer them for specialized healthcare thus they are left out in the public service.
The lost group in humanitarian assistance
Since the start of the socio-political crisis in Cameroon in 2016, some groups of persons bear a heavy brunt of the consequences. One of these groups is those with disabilities. The humanitarian crisis has brought in assistance from many international organizations. Unfortunately, the assistance seldom reaches to people with disabilities for many reasons. Most assistance is distributed at centralized places and their inability to access these spaces makes it difficult for them to receive such aid.
Secondly, there has been no consideration regarding the specific needs of those who benefit from this aid, even if they finally receive it.
If there is a recommendation that one could make, it will be for the Government and all other stakeholders in Humanitarian Assistance to intentionally consider persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups.
By Clementina Njang Yong