Bamako — Mali's disabled have access to some free healthcare options, and are supported by a number of associations and charities, but what they really want is to find work and contribute to the national economy, says NGO Handicap International (HCI).
"I want to control my work, my life myself," said Koné Draman, who was paralysed from the waist down in a 2001 car accident. "I want to be a part of the community that way."
A lot of progress has been made on this front, said Moctar Ba, president of the Malian Association of Handicapped People (FEMAPH), but many disabled people still lack the necessary education or skills to earn a living other than through begging.
While the World Health Organization estimates 10 percent of the Malian population is disabled, Ba thinks the percentage is much higher because of road traffic accidents and illnesses left untreated.
Most of the employment progress has taken place in the public sector. Government ministries practice positive discrimination to hire people with disabilities, encouraging disabled people to take the entrance exam for civil servant employment.
Some 241 young disabled graduates were accepted into the civil service in 2009, said Ba.
The Ministry of Social Affairs has been particularly proactive in hiring people with disabilities, said HCI.
The government has signed the International Labour Organization Convention on Decent Work, which addresses employment rights of disabled people; and Mali is the seventh African country to sign the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Private sector lagging
But stigma runs rife in the private sector, where companies shun hiring disabled people, said Ba. "Employers tend not to see the intrinsic value of a person ... but only see their disability, which is a shame," he told IRIN.
Barthélemey Sangala, FEMAPH coordinator, backs this up: "Most disabled can't find private sector jobs as most companies think they can't work."
The attitudes of employers, educators and disabled people themselves must be changed, said HCI head in Mali Marc Vaernewyck. "We don't push for charity, but to help disabled people access existing institutions ... to help them build self-confidence and self-esteem and drop stigma," he told IRIN. "Even when armed with a diploma, most disabled people lack the confidence to go out and seek a job because of these attitudes," he told IRIN.
One way to change attitudes is to encourage proactive disabled citizens to set up their own businesses, said HCI project coordinator Sidy Ahmed Adiawiakoy, by helping them access micro-credit loans.
Draman applied for a loan to set up a water pump in Bamako's run-down neighbourhood of Sablibougou, where most residents live in mud houses, with no electricity or running water.
"I knew getting water was difficult, so I went to the association in 2009 to see if I could set up a water pump," Draman told IRIN. HCI donated US$425 towards the pump and helped Draman get a bank loan for the remaining $638. He has since paid off the loan in full.
He charges the equivalent of five US cents for 10 litres of water, taking home US$6-10 in profit per day. Before the pump was installed, residents paid water deliverers 42 cents to bring 10 litres of water to their houses, he said.
The change Draman has gone through is remarkable, said Adiawiakoy. "He used to do little, asking his neighbours to pass on meals ... Now he is actively contributing to improving life in the neighbourhood."
Adiawiakoy is confident that larger companies are starting to be more open to hiring disabled people. In a recent study of 200 businesses, some 120 of them employed people with some form of disability.
But change can only come about on a wider scale if disabled children are actively encouraged to attend school, said HCI's Vaernewyck. Too often, they are either not sent, or they drop out after primary level as teachers are not equipped to meet their needs.
Specialist private schools for those with sight problems, hearing problems and learning difficulties, operate in the capital, and FEMAPH subsidizes some children's school fees. But they, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), and HCI want more disabled people to be included in regular schools. "We want inclusive schools where disabled people are trained the same way and under the same environment as all other children," said FEMAPH's Ba. Inclusive education is the key to dismantling stigma, he told IRIN.
There has been some success: Enrollment of disabled children in regular schools has increased; and the Education Ministry now runs a project teaching secondary school teachers brail, but such programmes need to be expanded to reach more children, said Ba.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]