The Disabled in the South can Make Money, Restore Dignity

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The South’s disabled are a large population and often suffer more than even the poorest residents. It is estimated that there are 500 million disabled people in the world, with either mental, physical or sensory impairment. As many as 80 percent of all disabled people live in isolated rural areas in developing countries, and in some countries more than 20 percent of the population is classed as disabled (UN).

Obstacles are everywhere for the disabled and just being able to economically survive, let alone thrive, can be a superhuman struggle. There are many physical and social barriers in most countries which thwart full participation, and millions of children and adults live lives of segregation and degradation.

But two radically different approaches show something can be done, and perceptions re-shaped.

In the Republic of Congo in central Africa, blind entrepreneur Jean-Pierre Louya is mentoring other blind people in the business of making soap. There are an estimated 11,709.95 blind people, or 0.3% of the population of 3,903,318 (http://www.uniteforsight.org/eye_stats.php). Most are blind because their eye infections have gone untreated, or they have diseases like diabetes.

Life is very hard for many in Congo. Brazzaville, the capital, was heavily damaged in a civil war in 1997 and many thousands were killed.

Jean-Pierre, who is also the head of the country’s association for the blind (http://www/afub-uafa.org/pages/pages3.asp), picked up his soap-making skills from a soap cooperative. Once a truck driver, he went blind as a result of an eye disease 25 years ago. With the training from the soap cooperative, he has been successfully running his soap-making business, where he turns palm oil into high-lather soap, and used the profits to raise his seven children and buy some land.

But rather than just keeping his business secrets to himself, Jean-Pierre mentors other blind people in this delicate art. There are many stages in the process of making soap that are risky, but he mixes 20 litres of water with three kilograms of caustic soda – the most dangerous part of making soap – by using his memory. He knows what temperature it is by touch, how to get the mixture right by smell, and what amounts to use by sound.

Pouring in the hot palm oil, he told Reuters: “The barrel was already hot, so the first bit of oil I poured made noise: that’s how I l knew I had poured the liquid inside the barrel.”

“It was very hard for me to accept this condition,” he said. “it was two years before I could go out in public because I was embarrassed that my friends see me this way.”

“A blind person is teaching a trade to another blind person,” said Samuel Koubouana, a blind apprentice soapmaker Jean-Pierre is teaching. “It really means a lot to me. JP is improving my life.”

Jean-Pierre relies a great deal on the goodwill of local people to get around. As local Lenvo Lydie told Reuters: “Blind people really suffer in this country. The blind should be driven from one point to another rather than being left alone to fend for themselves in the streets.”

But in Congo there are few government programmes for disabled people and none for the blind. As president of the Association of the Blind in Congo, Jean-Pierre is helping other blind people take control of their lives.

In Angola, the Miss Landmine contest has taken a highly controversial approach to restoring dignity to the disabled. The brainchild of Norwegian theatre director Morten Traavik, the beauty contest featuring landmine amputees took place for the first time in April in Angola’s capital, Luanda. Angola has one of the highest rates of landmine amputees in the world, after a brutal 27-year civil war. Estimates place the number injured at 80,000.

The 18 contestants represented each province of the country, and the contest is about restoring self-esteem in women who have been isolated and marginalised. Traavik was shocked by the large number of amputees, but he also saw that Angolans really liked beauty contests. The contest’s motto is “Everyone has the right to be beautiful”.

It is funded by the Angolan government’s de-mining commission and Norway’s Arts Council. Participants receive US $196 a day and get to keep their dresses and jewellery. The winner, 31-year-old Augusta Hurica from Luanda, becomes an ambassador for international landmine survivors.

While the contest has had many critics, it has been so successful it will be replicated in Cambodia next year. And a worldwide contest is in the works for 2015.

Emilia Luzia, a contestant, told Marie Claire magazine: “I am happy to be representing my region and all disabled people, but it is also good to feel special and glamorous. This is the first time I’ve worn such nice clothes.”

Another contestant took on the critics. Twenty-six-year-old Sandra Tichika, said: “Most of the ladies here are from small villages: we struggle, we are isolated, yet here we are being noticed and accepted – how bad can that be?”

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