In 2018, for the first time ever, Sierra Leoneans suffering from blindness and visual impairment were able to vote using tactile ballot guide.
For Thomas Alieu, Disability Access Adviser to the Sierra Leone National Electoral Commission, it was a proud moment.
Speaking on polling day, March 7, he said: “This is the first time in the history of this country where a blind person like myself can vote independently like this.”
Thomas advised the NEC on access issues for the disabled community and on what the commission needed to do to treat the community with the proper respect and dignity.
“This election is the first time that real attention has been paid to inclusive participation. In the past it has just been lip service.”
“I am so happy that I have been able to cast my vote in this way. I am very happy that I am part and parcel of this process. It is our fundamental right.”
Well known as a disability activist in Freetown, Thomas is executive director of the Educational Centre for Blind and Visually Impaired (ECBVI).
He founded the organisation in 2001 after the “bitter experience” of being unable to continue his law studies because the facilities for the blind at the University of Freetown were inadequate.
“I wanted to become the first blind person in this country to be a lawyer. I wanted to help blind people and people with disability,” he recalls.
“I had already done a degree in history and political science, but I needed to hire people to read my notes. The research and amount of reading for law was just too much for them.”
ECBVI offers help with studying to those aged over 15, and is supported by the Sierra Leonean government. Still, says Thomas, funds are always a concern.
The ambitious goals of the Persons with Disabilities Act in 2011 are a welcome sign that disability is being taken more seriously. However, implementation of the Act is still in the early stages and additional funding is required if it is to achieve its objectives, according to Thomas.
The story of how Thomas became blind is typical of a country with little or no basic health care. Growing up in Bo, he contracted measles at the age of five. His desperately poor family couldn’t afford to take him to a clinic and so treated him with traditional herbs, which, he says, caused him to lose his sight.
It was only thanks to the tenacity of his late grandmother who found out that there was a school for blind children in Freetown, which he attended from the age of eight.
“I was determined not to be held back. I was determined to learn,” he says.
Blind and disabled people in Sierra Leone continue to battle against discrimination, unfortunately. “There are negative cultural and social beliefs that are still to change. Often people associate disability with witchcraft. It’s a lack of education.
“Or people think we are only interested in charity. If society took a more practical approach, then attitudes could change. There is cause for optimism, but we need more support.”