Review: The World’s Worst Place to be Disabled

The World’s Worst Place… is a documentary featuring Sophie Morgan, a British model and TV presenter who has been a wheelchair user since being paralysed in a car accident twelve years ago, travelling to Ghana to investigate the situation facing disabled people there. She had been told by Shantha Rau Barriga, director of disability rights at Human Rights Watch, that Ghana was the world’s worst place to be disabled and that she would have to see it herself to believe it. So off she went, with her brother, to see various examples of poverty and discrimination facing disabled people, including children, around the country. I’m late reviewing this, so it’s only available for the next week here; the presenter has written a piece for the Huffington Post about the investigation.

Sophie Morgan, a young white woman in a wheelchair, facing Adamson, a young black man in a wheelchair with one of his legs bent over the other.She starts off interviewing Adamson, a homeless wheelchair user in the capital, Accra, who sleeps in a market (where he cannot remain during the day) and begs from motorists on a busy highway during the day, making not enough money to pay for a lift back home, meaning he has to wheel himself. He had been begging for ten years, originally hoping to go back to school, and said nobody had come to ask how they were doing or appeared to care. Sophie then takes him to where the city’s minibuses pick up passengers, but none of them would even consider taking her or Adamson despite their being able to dismantle their wheelchairs (Adamson appears to have a modern, lightweight chair; others have quite sophisticated wheelchairs but others use skateboards or crawl on their hands; this will have caught the eye of many disabled people watching, and in a lot of developing countries, poor people who need wheelchairs have to make do with wheelbarrows, or nothing). Sophie asks Adamson why he remains begging in Accra, and he tells her that things are far worse in the countryside where he comes from. So, off she and her brother go to investigate.

In the countryside, she finds one or two places where disabled people are being rehabilitated and taught life and work skills, mostly run by private philanthropy or foreign religious organisations, but there are a huge number of ‘prayer camps’ around the country which claim to be able to heal people’s impairments through prayer and by casting out demons. At one of the charity-run centres, an American nun told her that people often take their disabled relatives to her centre last because they go to a prayer camp or traditional healer first, and in a case she saw, this delay meant that a child needed an operation that could have been avoided by earlier medical treatment. She met one young man named Francis who had been kept in a dark room for years because he had some kind of mobility impairment; he initially claimed that his friends sometimes came to visit, but when someone who had been standing at the door telling him what to say was found out and left, he revealed that he only had his mother for company. Since the programme was made, Francis has died, and questions should be asked as to why, as he did not appear to be emaciated or ill.

An African woman wearing a blue, Muslim-style headscarf and a long pink and turcquoise dress, with chains around her ankleShe attempted to visit one prayer camp, a vast and apparently well-run establishment, but her guides told her that the management had refused to allow her to meet any ‘patients’, so she had to leave. She then went to a more downmarket camp run by a supposedly Muslim female mystic (oddly named Madam Irene) where disabled people were chained by their legs to posts or trees. One man she met had been tricked into coming there by his family some weeks ago and had only been allowed to wash twice, but towards the end of that segment an old lady was shown being chained to a tree without any complaint. The ‘Muslim’ mystic’s employees told Sophie that if parents brought her a child who “doesn’t look human”, i.e. have deformities, she would give them some potion or other and leave the child until he or she “goes back to the spirits”, i.e. dies. Accompanied by a Mr Burima, who works to protect disabled children in Ghana, she visits a bridge over a river where disabled children are given poisoned Schnapps by a “fetish priest” and then dumped in a river. He says that rituals like these are performed every Tuesday and Friday, and the place where this happens is next to a busy road; a Schnapps container has been discarded in the bushes.

An African man wearing a tall hat, a striped grey tunic with red trousers, with his right arm resting on a stone surface next to himShe then visits a “fetish priest” on the pretext of a consultation so he might cure her of her disability. She brings him two bottles of Schnapps and about £40 as a gift, and he sprinkles some seeds on a stone surface so as to “consult the gods” about her disability. He tells her that she was born someone great, but when she tried to be great her efforts came to nothing; that when she was a child her family tried to use witchcraft on her but her “spirit is great” so they could not do this. To heal her would be no problem at all, he said. She then told him that she was in fact injured in a car crash and asked him about the children that parents brought to him. He revealed that he disposed of them in much the same way as described by Mr Burima. After this, she says to the camera that this man murders children and that she does not want to talk to “this lunatic” anymore.

Mr Dennis of the National Council for People with Disabilities, a middle-aged African man wearing a pastel yellow and blue shirtAfter visiting another rehab centre in the countryside, she comes back to Accra and visits a government building (the one place she has been in which has ramps at the entrance) hoping to meet the minister for health, but instead she gets to meet a Mr Dennis, the secretary of the National Council for People with Disabilities, who has no obvious impairment of his own. She asks him what the government is doing, and he tells her that a large part of their work is “awareness raising”, including talking to disabled people, some of whom have accepted the treatment society throws at them, which she criticises for blaming disabled people for others’ neglect. He calls the country’s Disabilities Act a “very nice document”, but says that a lot of the problems are down to its provisions “not being respected”. She then tells him that people are chained up in some prayer camps, and Mr Dennis tells her that they had done nothing about this. As for the “fetish priests” and why they get away with murdering disabled children, he excuses this by saying they could only be prosecuted when there was “clear evidence”, which there often is not. Clearly it seems that the government is not doing much to make sure that fine words are translated into action and to stop the neglect and murders. One suspects that these beliefs are not confined to rural villages but that some people in power might believe them (or at least, are reliant on such people’s votes), but this wasn’t put to him.

A lot was missing from this documentary. She did not look at the sitation for disabled people in Accra itself other than by talking to one homeless man; there are surely disabled people trying to work or attend school, who surely must face some challenges: not only lack of public transport, but lack of accessible buildings, including clinics and perhaps even hospitals, discrimination, old-fashioned education practices such as boarding schools, and so on, and that’s only for the middle classes. In the countryside, she looked at extreme examples of neglect and abuse, but not what everyday life for disabled adults: can they get educated, work, marry? And her manner, and the style of this documentary, grated on my nerves the same way as Stacey Dooley’s documentaries do. There is too much focus on her reactions to what she sees; good documentaries let the facts do the talking.

A light-skinned African man with scars on his face with a blue and white striped T-shirt with his left hand missing and the stump covered in bandages, in a hospital in TanzaniaBut as for the question raised by the programme’s title, surely the answer is no. Ghana cannot be the worst place to be disabled because it is a prosperous country with a fairly free press where there is no war going on. That she was able to take a camera round and interview people without government agents harassing them speaks volumes. That is not the case in many other parts of Africa, and the beliefs that justify the killing of disabled children are not confined to Ghana: the belief that children are capable of witchcraft, may be possessed by demons, or similar, is widespread. In Tanzania, for example, nearly 80 albinos have been killed since 2000 because witch-doctors believe their body parts have medicinal properties (there are numerous pictures available of living albinos with missing limbs, for the same reason); earlier this year more than 200 of these witch-doctors were arrested. In other parts of West Africa, including neighbouring countries to Ghana, there have been civil wars in the past few years. This surely makes life more dangerous for all disabled people, whatever their parents’ beliefs.

But let’s not pretend we need to send a camera crew around a third-world country to find horrific examples of abuse of disabled people. If you’re experiencing long-term severe neglect, is it worse to be kept in a room at home where family can easily see you and bring you the same food they eat, or to be confined to a locked, padded room in a hospital 50 miles from home for seven years? No, we don’t have fetish priests dumping children in rivers, and this may be a fairly good place to be a middle-class person with an uncomplicated disability, but our care of people with complex disabilities, with mental health problems and learning disabilities (particularly if combined), while it may be more technologically advanced, is still often abysmal and they still die unnecessarily young, and unlike Ghana, we do not have the excuse of poverty.

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