Senegal: Disabled students fight great odds

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Inclusion in higher education is one of the prerequisites for building the sort of diversity in a local tourism economy to make a place a destination of choice for travelers with disabilities. This story from Senegal is not one of the more hopeful in this regard.

SENEGAL: Disabled students fight great odds

Students recently protested a shortage of housing for the physically handicapped at Dakar's Cheikh Anta Diop University

DAKAR, 18 December 2007 (IRIN) - On the campus of Cheikh Anta Diop University in the Senegal capital Dakar, physically handicapped students can often be seen crawling unaided up concrete staircases or across dirty bathroom floors.

With a few exceptions - such as the main library and a new amphitheatre - buildings on the sprawling, sandy campus have no handicap accessibility.

"Users of hand-powered or motorised wheelchairs have to crawl to access certain buildings," the disabled students association said in a recent letter to the authorities. The association compiled a list of their grievances and proposed solutions and presented it to university officials at the beginning of the school year.

Serigne Diop, a government official, says he cannot erase from his mind what he calls an "unbearable" image. "I saw a severely handicapped student trying to make it up a spiral staircase on crutches. I think she did not want to crawl so as not to get her clothes dirty," he said. "Other students passed by her without bothering to help at all."

Given the difficulties of getting around, physically disabled students often arrive late to classes. That is for those who have on-campus lodging. For those who do not, commuting is a problem, as public transport vehicles have no accommodations for wheelchairs, the disabled students association says.

Abandoning school

In their dorm room, which also serves as the headquarters of the association, students lament two disabled female colleagues who had to abandon their studies for lack of on-campus housing.

They were not the first and likely will not be the last, say handicapped students.

"These two students, who had passed the university entrance exams, had to drop their academic ambitions and return to their home villages simply because they did not find housing on campus," Fulbert Manga of the association told IRIN.

Disabled students remaining at the university say they face the same struggle daily - lack of housing, lack of access to most school buildings and public transport, inadequate financial assistance and difficulty getting decent jobs.


Photo: Serigne Adama Boye
The social services building is one of few university buildings that have ramps for wheelchair access
While Senegal's constitution includes laws protecting the rights of disabled persons, and the country is a signatory to related international conventions, the daily reality is otherwise, students say. For the disabled, arriving at university means taking on a huge battle far beyond keeping up with studies.

Access

The handicapped students association in November staged a protest at the university, calling for better housing. For some 250 disabled students, at least 162 beds should be made available according to quotas agreed to by university officials, but only 107 beds are available, fourth-year sociology student Insa Sané said.

The director of housing, Makhtar Ndoye, says given the wider problem of housing at the university the housing department has had to fight to keep even 107 spaces for handicapped students. At Dakar's main university, only 5,136 beds are available with a student body of some 55,000.

Bathrooms also pose a constant problem for disabled students. "In not one single men's room will you find a sit-down toilet, and that's the case even in some women's restrooms," Yague Touré, a second-year physics and chemistry student, told IRIN.

"We are constantly protesting these inhumane conditions in the toilets." In many restrooms, inaccessible in a wheelchair, the floors are wet from faulty faucets. "Those of us who use wheelchairs are forced to crawl in dirty water." Housing official Ndoye says the university plans to install sit-down toilets and repair the faucets.

Regional problem

Djibril Sow, West Africa director of an African Union institute for the physically handicapped, said disabled people face such barriers in public places across the region. He said many more disabled students would likely be in university were conditions better.

"Certainly if conditions were improved, the number of physically handicapped students in Dakar would be multiplied by 10 or 20. From Dakar to [the Burkina Faso capital] Ouagadougou, the disabled face the same kinds of problems."

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