Ebola: helping people with impaired vision to stay safe

In Sierra Leone, social mobilization teams have been spreading the message out about how best to protect yourself from the Ebola virus. One large billboard sponsored by UNICEF and the Sierra Leone Football Association is typical: promoting hand washing and the 117 Ebola hotline. Elsewhere, what are often quite graphic posters, explain the symptoms and what to do.

The messages are clear for all to see. But they’re not accessible to everyone, especially the country’s more than 40,000 visually-impaired people.

UNICEF and the Government of Sierra Leone co-lead the social mobilization pillar, which includes a subgroup for people special needs, so that they are not forgotten in the overall messaging. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) have even helped produce Ebola messaging in braille.

Basiru Bah, 17-years-old, is visually impaired and explains some of the struggles as he seeks to share the right messages with his friends. “When I go to any Ministry to make my advocacy work, if there is no person standing near the point where the bucket with chlorinated water is, I can’t use this preventive measure.”

The commonly heard mantra ‘Don’t touch’, is also problematic: “I need to touch the shoulder of the people who guide me. Giving our family members the correct messages on prevention could be a solution. In blind associations they suggest we use long sleeves [to reduce human contact],” he says.

Like all of his fellow Sierra Leoneans, Basiru’s life has been deeply affected by the Ebola outbreak. “I’m an advocate for the children’s rights, both for impaired and non-impaired children. Because of Ebola, I decided to move from my family house to the School for the Blind in Freetown,” he says. Now he is closer to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology where he sees that he has a role to play.

“My advocacy plans have been disturbed by the outbreak,” he says. Now when he goes to any institution to advocate for the rights of the children the answer is always the same: Ebola is the priority.

Moreover his studies are in limbo: “I was preparing my West African examination when the outbreak started and it was put on hold for all the country because of Ebola.” According to UNICEF, more than 100,000 children in Sierra Leone have been affected by the postponed dates of the examination.

“I used to have a very active social life,” says Basiru. “Now I don’t even ask my friends to go and visit them.” Even the religious prayer has changed: “I’m Muslim,” says Basiru, “and in the Islamic preaching we shake our hands when we finish, and we are not doing it anymore.”

Yolanda Romero is a consultant working with UNICEF Sierra Leone.

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