Ghana: Redefining Ability – Lessons Learned from Survivors of Disabilities

Photography by Ellie Dupler.


Yefreme Ellie. Mefiri America. My introduction in broken Twi echoed over the buzz of mosquitos and the cries of babies suffering from conjunctivitis worse than most western health workers could ever imagine. Despite the pain and blindness the 450 people sitting before me in the sweltering church were enduring, they smiled in appreciation at my attempt to speak their language. More grateful than I could express with my limited knowledge of Twi, I grinned at the welcome.

Last summer, I spent nine weeks interning with Unite for Sight, aiding eye clinics with sight restoration in over 40 rural villages throughout Ghana. We set off each day by dawn, driving up to four hours along bumpy gravel roads to reach the most underserved villages in the country. Our goal? To screen visual acuity, prescribe and distribute antibiotics and glasses, and refer the unhealthiest and poorest patients for fully-funded surgeries in Accra to restore their vision. While I am now able to distinguish between various eye drops and lens prescriptions with ease, the two months that I spent travelling around Ghana taught me much more than how to care for eyes. Through this experience, I was exposed to the full depth of misconceptions about health conditions and the effects of gaps in healthcare that ravish the developing world. I gained insight not only into pressing global health issues, but also saw for the first time what it means for health to be a fundamental human right.

The fourth day of outreach, the term attributed to the days we spent traveling to various villages, is one that left a vivid mark on my heart and one that I refer to often in drawing connections between health and human rights. To be honest, there are many days from which I can no longer remember specific happenings, days that are blurs of eye exams and long drives through winding dusty roads. But on the fourth day, I met Margaret.

We pulled up to a cement schoolhouse which had been partially converted into an outreach center. As I would later come to expect as the daily norm, twenty or thirty schoolchildren rushed to the van to greet the “obrunis”, the Ghanaian word for “white person”. They clambered over one another, yelling and cheering, but one girl, perhaps five or six years of age, held back and watched the welcome from afar. Over the course of an hour-long pre-exam health presentation that the eye doctors gave to our patients, I saw the other children repeatedly push around and laugh at the little girl; I later learned her name was Margaret. Naturally, I was intrigued by her behavior and sought to befriend her. Margaret appeared to be a normal girl with a bright smile and beautiful eyes. She was in every way inviting and playful and cheerful, but not once did I hear her talk throughout all of our interactions. I later learned that Margaret was mute; she had not, and would never speak, and was thus the target of much ridicule from her peers, teachers, and people in the village.


I only had one day to spend in that particular village and I spent as much of it as I could trying to discern what life could possibly be like for a young girl growing up without the ability to talk in a place where most of the population, who possessed little medical knowledge, heavily misunderstood conditions such as Margaret’s. I learned that Margaret was kept out of school, bullied, and thought to be dumb and incapable of learning. Knowing that her lack of speech was no indicator of intelligence, I taught Margaret to be my assistant for the day, a job she accepted with great pride and at which she excelled. The experience was a testament to the detrimental effect that medical misunderstanding can have on a person’s life. Margaret had just as much right as her peers to pursue education and be treated as a capable individual, but the lack of health knowledge and misconceptions of disabilities in her rural village blinded her family and teachers and deprived her of these rights. It was an eye-opening example of the need for health education, better resources and open communication about pressing health issues in the developing world.

In Ghana, I understood for the first time what it was for healthcare to not be just a privilege, but a fundamental human right. One day, I got lost in a maze of stalls while browsing at a street market and wandered in one direction until I finally made my way out. When I reached the edge of the vendors’ territories, I came upon a dusty open field where about 15 one-legged men ran around on crutches after an all-but-flattened soccer ball, governed by a one-armed referee. Witnessing the bond between the men was inspiring, but saddening. Having been in Ghana for over a month at this point, these were not the first polio victims I had seen left crippled by a disease that is today nearly unheard of in the developed world. However, seeing such a multitude of polio survivors in one place was overwhelming and left me burning with questions. How could such a preventable disease be claiming so many lives each year? What would be the future for these men? No employer would hire them. Many would never marry.

It is absurd that in a world where modern medical technology has made it possible to prevent illnesses such as polio, more time, effort, and money are not being invested to make treatments and preventative measures such as the polio vaccine accessible to all. It is not only the privileged who deserve protection from these diseases. It is essential to remember that all individuals have equal rights to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their futures, and that no life is more valuable than any other.

My experiences with Margaret and the polio victims serve as vivid reminders of the real world effects of health policy and social injustice, and have caused me to grow immensely in my understanding of health and human rights. In these cases and more, despite adverse circumstances that often show little signs of improving in the near future, I witnessed determination and perseverance that left an indelible mark on my heart. Eight months after leaving Ghana, these people and others like them who are still waiting and hoping for medical miracles and rights to treatment and education to arrive in the developing world are the driving force behind nearly everything I do.

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