Following the first official case of Ebola in Guinea in December 2013, the disease spread unchecked throughout the country and neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone, where Handicap International has worked since 1996, very little was known about the disease or how it is transmitted—there had never been an Ebola outbreak in this part of Africa.
“I only wish we knew about Ebola sooner,” says Thomas Lebbie, president of the Sierra Leone Association of the Blind. “Before we could educate the blind community about how to prevent the disease, we lost some of our members including our dear chairman in Port Loko district.”
As the epidemic grew, health authorities launched a national awareness campaign to educate the public about how to prevent the spread of the disease. However, not everyone got the message.
“The national prevention messages were not inclusive,” says Arthur Saidu, Handicap International Social Mobilization Project Manager. “People with disabilities, such as the blind who cannot read pamphlets, or the deaf who cannot hear radio messages, did not know how to protect themselves. Also, people with disabilities have a hard time with certain messages, like the policy advising people not to touch anyone. Many of them must physically hold on to other people in order to move around.”
In response, Handicap International worked with partners, local officials, community volunteers, and disabled persons organizations to develop and share prevention messaging adapted to the needs of people with disabilities and their families.
“With the help of 238 community based rehabilitation volunteers (CBRVs) working in seven districts in Sierra Leone, we were able to reach 16,877 people, including adults and children with disabilities, their caregivers and other family members, and local stakeholders,” says Saidu. “CBRVs are trusted community members we identified and trained to reach people with disabilities where ever they may be.” Handicap International made a special effort to reach amputees — often victims of the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone — who usually live in villages away from other community members.
Working with local and national disabled persons’ organizations was key to developing appropriate messaging and disseminating the information. “For example, to reach visually impaired people, we worked with the Sierra Leone Association of the Blind,” says Saidu.
“With support from Handicap International we printed 300 Braille books with Ebola prevention information and distributed them nationwide,” says Thomas Lebbie. “But, we didn’t stop there, because many blind people cannot read Braille. We recorded the same messages on cassette tapes and distributed them to our members with cassette players so they could listen to the information and then share it with other blind people. When we put the messages out in the chiefdoms and the districts, many more blind people knew what to do to avoid Ebola.”
In addition to working with people with disabilities, Handicap International also made efforts to educate other vulnerable people traditionally excluded from mainstream society, especially sex workers. “Through a local partner, we engaged women and girls working in the commercial sex industry in the slums of Freetown,” say Saidu. Outreach workers taught them about the disease and how to recognize the symptoms, and about the importance of using condoms.
“We received a lot of feedback from the beneficiaries, saying that if had not been for the actions of Handicap International, there would have been more causalities among vulnerable groups,” says Saidu. “Our work empowered a set of people who are usually not included in decision-making. That makes me happy. In the future, we need to work on including more people with disabilities in governance structures.”