A Federationist in A Strange Land

by Greg D. Trapp

Braille Monitor

December, 1996

From the Editor: Greg Trapp is an active member of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico. He recently took two weeks' leave from his job to volunteer in Ghana. This is what he writes about his experience:

 Imagine that you live in a land where the average income is just a little over $400 a year. Now imagine that you are blind and that most people you meet believe that blindness is a curse from God. Also imagine that you have no independent cane travel skills, that there are no sidewalks for you to walk on, that traffic flows with no discernible pattern, and that open sewers frequently cut across your path. Last, imagine that you do not have a job, that you cannot afford a Braille writer or even a simple tape recorder, and that you must resort to begging to scratch out your meager living. You have just imagined yourself as an average blind person in the West African nation of Ghana.

I recently spent two weeks in Ghana as a faculty leader with Joni and Friends (JAF), which is the disability ministry of Joni Eareckson-Tada. Joni, as you may know from the book and movie by the same name, became a quadriplegic after a teenage diving accident. JAF has a division called Wheels for the World. They collect and repair used wheelchairs and distribute them to people with disabilities around the world. For the last three years they have distributed wheelchairs in Ghana. While it may be difficult for Americans to imagine, Ghanaians commonly believe that persons with disabilities, particularly blind people, are either cursed by God or afflicted by evil spirits. As a result Ghanaians with disabilities, especially the blind, are shunned by society, forcing most to resort to begging. Dependence on begging is reinforced because it is considered sinful not to give to a beggar. The sight of a blind beggar is common in Ghana, though it is even more common to see beggars with bodies twisted by polio, crawling on their hands and knees.

My job with the JAF team was to teach church and community leaders that people with disabilities are not cursed and that they deserve an equal place in the church and in society. To help in this effort, JAF brought over 200 wheelchairs. I brought several dozen Braille slates, two dozen white canes, two Braille Bibles, a Braille concordance, and Braille and print copies of NFB materials including Care and Feeding of the Long White Cane. Although these items could meet only a tiny portion of the physical need, our real purpose was to bring about a lasting change in attitude.

The primary means for effecting the change in attitude was a series of three-day seminars. These were designed to enable students to return to their own communities, where they would teach others. Each seminar was co-taught by either a pair of physical therapists or a pair of disability specialists. The principal Bible passage used was John 9:1-3, in which Christ expressed the value He placed on people with disabilities when he said of the blind man, "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him."

I was a faculty leader for the seminar in Accra. Community leaders, pastors, and one Member of Parliament attended it. As the seminar began, it became clear that many of the students were unwilling to deal with a blind person. Some of the students ignored me, addressing their questions and comments to the seminar co-leader. As the seminar progressed, I noticed that the students who did not ignore me were interested in my personal and professional accomplishments. They were incredulous that a blind person could be employed as a lawyer, teach as a law professor, and live and travel independently.

The tangible example of a useful and productive blind person was far more effective in bringing about changes in attitude than any words I could have spoken. By the second day of the seminar, I had managed to connect with most of the students. By the final day even the students who had initially ignored me took the initiative to speak to me. I hope they also learned that a blind person could achieve more than just living a life as a beggar. One of the first things I noticed about the blind in Ghana was their complete lack of cane-travel skills. Even relatively independent and successful blind people almost always travel using a sighted guide. Several factors may account for the lack of cane travel skills. Most Ghanaians can only afford locally made wooden canes that are short and extremely heavy. These canes, which cost the equivalent of about three dollars, are very clumsy when compared to a fiberglass cane. Another factor may be the lack of proper cane travel instruction. At one rehabilitation center six blind students were sharing a single wooden cane. Our gift to the center of several NFB straight canes was gratefully received but could fill only a tiny fraction of the overall need.

It is also true that difficult travel conditions undoubtedly hinder the development of cane travel skills, especially considering the lack of positive attitudes about blindness. For instance, doorways often have thresholds that are several inches high and several inches wide. Similar thresholds are also sometimes used to border patio areas. In superstitious cultures, such thresholds are believed to help keep out demons and evil spirits. However, these thresholds are also difficult to identify by cane. In addition, Western style sidewalks are nearly nonexistent. In their place are uneven paths shared by pedestrians and vehicles. Worse yet, traffic laws are only sporadically obeyed, creating no discernible traffic pattern.

Perhaps worst of all, open sewers often cut across pathways and run alongside roadways. These sewers are sometimes several feet deep and are typically two or three feet across. Needless to say, the open sewers were highly conducive to my own proper cane use. At the conclusion of the seminar in Accra, I left to join the JAF team in the coastal city of Tema. Each day another team member, a physical therapist, and I journeyed by van to the villages of Abouri and Akrapong. My partner was dropped off in Abouri, and I continued along a winding mountain road that led to Akrapong. We each had a local guide whose knowledge of the culture and language was invaluable. For the next four days I observed our students teaching their own seminars. I was pleased to see how readily the students embraced what they had been taught, though I was somewhat embarrassed to observe that they repeatedly used me as an example of what a blind person could accomplish.

We also visited the school for the blind in Akrapong. Unlike schools for the blind in America, this school is a large facility serving over 500 students, ranging in age from six to fifty. The school was originally founded as a Christian institution, but the demands of such a large facility led to its take-over by the government. More than fifty tribal languages are spoken in Ghana; but, because Ghana is a former British colony, its official language is English. Accordingly, the students are taught Grades I and II English Braille. As might be expected, handicrafts and music are heavily emphasized. Cane travel is taught, though it uses the short cane.

Unfortunately the school suffers from a serious shortage of supplies and equipment. It would be unimaginable for a school for the blind in America not to own a variety of adaptive computers and Braille printers. By contrast, the school for the blind in Ghana does not own a single adaptive computer or Braille printer. Even the most basic supplies, such as Braille paper, are scarce. I was also able to visit briefly the school for the deaf in Mapong, a village only a few miles from Akrapong. Students who are deaf-blind are sent to this school. The students are taught American Sign Language and are instructed in basic handicrafts.

The school is a Christian institution and receives some of its funding from World Vision. Like the school for the blind in Akrapong, the school for the deaf in Mapong seemed to be a place of tranquility, where students are sheltered from much of the harshness they would face elsewhere in Ghana. However, I left both facilities having to console myself that instruction in music and handicrafts is a positive alternative to begging--since American standards of education and independence do not apply in Ghana.

I was also able to visit the heads of the relatively new Ghana Association of the Blind and the much more established Ghana Society for the Blind. As their titles imply, the Ghana Association of the Blind (GAB) is an organization of blind persons led by the blind, while the Ghana Society for the Blind (GSB) is a service organization headed by a sighted person. There is an obvious rivalry between the GAB and the GSB. It was also readily apparent that the GSB had a closer relationship with the sighted headmaster at the school for the blind. Of course, this situation is reminiscent of what is frequently the case in America. Still it was clear that both the GAB and the GSB are sincerely dedicated to improving the lives of the blind.

Unfortunately, their efforts are frustrated by a crippling lack of resources. For instance, the GAB public relations director does not even own a standard tape recorder, and neither organization possesses an adaptive computer or Braille printer. On my last day in Ghana, I parted with the JAF team to meet with the leaders of the GAB and GSB again. The JAF team planned to go to an arts market in Accra, and I rejoined them after my GAB and GSB meetings. A small entourage of Ghanaians accompanied me. Up to this time, I had made a point of tactfully declining assistance from the overly helpful Ghanaians, choosing instead to walk by myself as much as possible. However, my independence came to an end as my cane snapped under the wheel of a cart that abruptly cut across my path. I had brought a spare, but it was back at the hotel. Suddenly I felt as helpless as the people I had come to help.

Wanting to salvage some good from the incident, I decided to take advantage of the situation to experience what it was like to be an average blind person in Ghana. I dropped my broken cane in a trash can, took the arm of a Ghanaian, and began to walk using a sighted guide. My sensitivity training lasted only a few minutes, because one especially resourceful member of the entourage retrieved the cane and used tape and a wooden dowel to splice it together. Those few moments when I was without a cane taught me to cherish even more the mobility and independence the long white cane provides.

During the long flight home, I thought about the scenes I had witnessed while in Ghana. I remembered being ignored during the seminar. I recalled one blind man's emotionally telling me how difficult it is for blind people to marry. I remembered the desperate pleas of a blind beggar I had encountered earlier that day in the market. Perhaps, I reflected, my stay had given me a glimpse of what it might have been like to be blind in America during the last century.

My experiences in Ghana have made me even more appreciative of the National Federation of the Blind. I am grateful for the opportunities that it has created for me and other Americans. Yet I know that we will not have truly changed what it means to be blind until the blind everywhere are free to live as equals in their communities and to compete on terms of equality with their sighted counterparts.