In northern Ghana, stigma around disability makes life challenging for people with visual impairments. We decided to bring together a team of fully-sighted and visually-impaired volunteers to see what we could do.
Volunteers on the International Service ICS project, REACT, have been teaching the Paralympic sport of goalball to local community teams - with all their work coming together as the teams faced off Ghana's national goalball squad.
Richard Wheatley, 23, from London, is functionally blind in one eye due to a brain tumour diagnosed at age five. But never one to be put off taking on a challenge, Richard has been using his goalball skills and his lived experience of disability to start conversations that change attitudes.
I first heard about ICS through a charity that helps blind and partially sighted graduates into work. I’d finished my degree and I had a gap in my life that I’d filled with goalball, having learnt how to play at school and eventually in an under 19s league at the Paralympics in Brazil.
My right eye is functionally blind, due to a brain tumour I was diagnosed with at the age of five. I had lots of operations and eventually the tumour was cut out. As a result I have a tiny amount of light and depth perception and I can see large objects with clearly-defined shapes.
It’s not a case of making adjustments for me. What are adjustments? They’re things you do differently when the situation changes, but my situation hasn’t changed. I make adjustments when the situation is new; because the thing hasn’t done before by a blind person. From magic tricks to being the first to study Theoretical Physics at my university, I just figure stuff out as I go.
On ICS, we were helping groups of visually impaired adults who’d already played goalball to play better. We were also teaching young sighted students how to play the sport as a means of helping them learn about disability. By the end of our orientation, we’d decided our plan was to train three teams to be good enough to play against Ghana’s national goalball team.
Because I’m obviously visually impaired, I had many conversations with people where they’d ask about my disability and were surprised about how well I moved around. I can walk through rooms without knocking over tables and chairs. That’s normal to me, but when I got asked how I was able to do that, I’d explain that in the UK, I have to act like that – with confidence – or I’d never be able to do anything or go anywhere.
It was those conversations that were the ones that mattered.
Sometimes stigma isn’t always obvious. What I saw from the blind community in Ghana is that their English is worse than sighted students of the same age. They’re not told ‘you can’t do this’, but they’re just not pushed to achieve because they’re not a priority. These subtle symptoms of them being shunned in schools have a huge impact on their lives.
I knew who I was as a person before I went out, and I still know who I am as a person. But ICS has given me memories which I can draw on in the future.
Patience Bamelikuu, 26, from Ghana, had never played the Paralympic sport of goalball before her International Service ICS placement. What she didn’t realise was how much the sport would change her attitudes towards disability.
Where I live, in a place called Lawra, in north-west Ghana, the trauma visually impaired people go through is immense. I thought being able to come back with practical experience of working with people with visual impairments could really help me make a difference at home.
We were working with visually impaired members of the community, helping them speak out to their families and their communities – groups by which they’re often stigmatised. We were trying change the perception that the visually impaired should be restricted to a life indoors.
In our day-to-day work we were hosting discussions on the radio about disability, going into churches and schools to speak about visual impairments – and also teaching communities the Paralympic sport of goalball: a game that helps break down the barriers between the disabled and non-disabled. Showing us how to play the game was British Paralympian Georgie Bullen.
ICS was my first time playing goalball, but I’ve discovered I’m a very good player! Learning how the game works during our training really inspired me to focus and learn. The ball contains a bell, and as everyone wears eye masks, you have to listen carefully for the sound of the bell to defend your goal. At first it was scary – you lose one of your senses – but by the end I loved it.
I’ve been living with a UK volunteer called Lucy. Although she has a visual impairment, there weren’t challenges in our relationship. We would do everything together. But if I wasn’t patient I wouldn’t be able to help. Through REACT I learnt how to support people with visual impairments. It’s made me better able to work with people with disabilities in future.
I hope that disabled people in my country can be raised higher. They should be able to achieve as much as they want. The sky is not their limit.