Who is Efua Asibon?
I am Efua Kumea Asibon and I'm the co-founder of Dislabelled, a non-profit organisation founded six years ago to tackle the stigma often attached to disability in many African countries, by addressing special needs education in Ghana.
I have recently graduated from my Masters in International Development at the London School of Economics (LSE). I was doing an undergraduate degree in the US and realised that I wasn't quite ready to go into work, so doing another degree was a great option for me. I knew I wanted to study abroad because I love travelling and experiencing new and different cultures. So, I applied to three universities and LSE was the one which offered me a full scholarship – and off to LSE I went!
This past year that I have spent in London has been the best year of my life so far. I've loved my time in the city; my friends, my church, the LSE student community. I think I have also grown a lot in this past year.
Where does the Dislabelled story begin?
I distinctively remember growing up in Ghana and the only disabled people I saw were by the roadside. I didn't see them in school, at church, the mall or even the supermarket. I remember asking my parents why a child just like me was begging on the street, but I never really got a concrete answer. I think my parents found it difficult to articulate an answer to me as a child. But, I think even after some years had passed these thoughts and questions were always close to my heart.
For me this was a eureka moment; it was such a shift in perspective. It was the first time I had seen a Ghanaian with a disability who had excelled in life and had actually built a career.
However, it wasn't until high school that my assumptions about disabilities were completely challenged. I was president of the Pan-African society at the time and we had invited software engineer called Farida Bedwei. Farida was such a contradiction to me; she had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy from an early age but had managed to become 'successful'. She had written a book, won awards and was a trailblazer in the tech sector.
For me this was a eureka moment; it was such a shift in perspective. It was the first time I had seen a Ghanaian with a disability who had excelled in life and built a career. So, I asked what her secret was and how her childhood was different from others with disabilities. She simply told me that her parents had invested in her education and personal development. This conversation sparked something in me and I spoke to the would-be co-founders of Dislabelled; Nana Ama Akowuah, Sedinam Worlanyo. We decided to go to different special education schools in Accra to see what was going on – that was six years ago.
So how have the last six years been? It's been an interesting journey with a lot of ebb and flow because we've all been in school for the majority of the time while trying to run an organisation. We've definitely found that being students and managing an organisation can sometimes be challenging and demanding. This has meant that at times Dislabelled had to kind of take a back seat. However, we do recognise that we are not where we started and have done a lot of projects which have impacted lives. Overall, I think these last six years have been a great learning experience which we hope to stand on and grow from.
What are some of the key milestones on the Dislabelled journey?
I think our first milestone was our GoFundMe page; it took a lot a guts to put ourselves out there, but people were so supportive and that blew our minds! So many people were sharing our page, sending us emails and generally people were really interested in the cause. I feel like often if a cause isn't close to home then its hard to empathise or feel connected it. So, to see so many people jump on board and make it possible for us to raise around $9,000 in just two months to kick start Dislabelled was an amazing surprise.
Our second milestone, I would say was our first summer programme called 'ThisAbility', which we held for autistic children. During the programme, we taught the children arts and crafts, music, dance and robotics. It was important that we exposed them to a myriad of learning activities to assess what they were good at and also what they enjoyed. We had found from interviews and observations that more often than not disabled students were not given the opportunity to find out what they were good at or their niche was.
I remember once a teacher asked me if autism was contagious;
so could their child would get autism by being near an autistic child.
'ThisAbility' gave us great insight which enabled us to improve and refine our projects, as we were working with the teachers and pupils on a daily basis. One of the first things which really stood out to us was that the teachers themselves needed formal training. There was definitely a lack of understanding and education regarding special needs and disabilities which were not visible. I remember once a teacher asked me if autism was contagious; so could their child would get autism by being near an autistic child. It struck me that we really had to find a way to equip teachers with the right information and give them the tools to effectively teach children on the autistic spectrum. This is how the 'SustainAbility' programme was born. The programme was about empowering teachers, so we brought in professionals to work and give them the necessary skills and knowledge. We gave the teachers the skills and confidence to go back into their schools and develop their curriculum according to the needs of their students.
What has the Queen's Young Leaders Award meant for you and the Dislabelled team?
We were super excited and honoured of course but I think it was more of a wake-up call for us. Contrary to general expectation receiving the Queen's Young Leaders Award actually put me in a very reflective mood. I started to think about the real life impact that we were making as an organisation. The award gave us a new awareness of the task at hand, the work we still had to do and how far we are from our goals.
So what's next for Dislabelled?
Our next move at Dislabelled is branching out from just working with autistic children to children with physical and cognitive disabilities. We also want to follow the story from education to the employment sector; looking at how having a disability affects or translates into an individual's experience as an adult working in Ghana. The big plan is to expand beyond Ghana to other African countries. But, there is an African proverb which goes something like; you have to sweep your home before sweep your neighbour's home. In short, there is still a lot of work to be done here in Ghana!
But there is an African proverb which goes something like; you have to sweep your home before sweep your neighbour's home.
What is one word or phrase that describes the Africa you want to see?
I would say tenacity; the ability to rise above challenges or circumstances despite failing at times, still striving for higher things. I think as a people we have so much potential – the African people are tenacious and definitely resilient.
NOTE: Cerebral palsy is the name for a group of lifelong conditions that affect movement and co-ordination, caused by a problem with the brain that occurs before, during or soon after birth.
For more information about cerebral palsy and Dislabelled please click here.