Supporting Women with Disabilities to Become Community Leaders

Image: Christiana Yaghr

By Susan Dunn, Project Manager, Mobility International USA

In 1995, MIUSA organized an historic event, the International Symposium on Women with Disabilities in Beijing, China at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. Building on this momentum, MIUSA launched its unique model of leadership training and innovative Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD) program,  an intensive three-week training in Eugene, Oregon that brings together women with disabilities from around the world who demonstrate leadership potential.

WILD graduates return to their communities to lead change and advocate for their rights in reproductive health, education, economic empowerment, and the prevention of HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence.  In this work, they serve as role models for other women and girls with disabilities. The Leadership, Management & Governance (LMG) project has been working with MIUSA since 2011 to strengthen the WILD program through action planning and follow-up with graduates.

One such WILD graduate and change agent is Christiana Yaghr of Ghana, who works with the Ghana National Association for the Deaf (GNAD). After participating in the MIUSA WILD training in 2013, Christiana received a WILD seed grant to partner with Ghana Health Service on a workshop to educate young women with disabilities on the risks of contracting HIV, avoiding unwanted pregnancies, and how to access information related to personal health. Participants were encouraged to share strategies for ensuring inclusion in mainstream services. Christiana co-facilitated the one-day training workshop for 22 women with disabilities with three health professionals including representatives of the regional and district health directorates. She also conducted trainings for health care personnel in health centers across the region on inclusion and access to health services for women with disabilities.

 “I got to know after the WILD participation that, despite one’s disability, if the person is determined, they can develop to greater heights. The WILD program has given me the courage to perform my duty well at my work place by relating well with my authorities and co-workers. WILD has also strengthened me to always think of ways of supporting and leading my colleagues [who are] disabled Deaf women. [I improved] the ability to organize a workshop on HIV/AIDS to sensitize women with disability, and to re-organize a more vibrant GNAD regional women Association.” Christiana’s work to improve health services for women with disabilities demonstrates how leadership training can invigorate people living with disabilities to be change agents in the workplace, engage as equals with their work colleagues, and advocate for inclusiveness as a strategy for improving the impact of their program results overall.

In her role as regional president of the Women’s Wing of the Upper West Region Association of the Deaf (UWAD-WW), Christiana mobilizes deaf women in rural Ghana to access information and education, and she oversees implementation of activities in her region. As a result of her advocacy and community mobilization, deaf women and girls are now included in community programs focused on people with all types of disabilities and are no longer segregated into programs exclusively for people who are deaf.

In Ghana, women with disabilities remain highly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, despite public health efforts that have reduced the national prevalence of HIV/AIDS by half. “Ensuring people with disabilities have access to health care in your communities largely depends on you.” This was Christiana Yaghr’s message, communicated in sign language, to 27 women with diverse disabilities in the small northern Ghanaian town of Wa. Representing regions throughout the country, many of the participants had traveled for hours to this workshop, the first of its kind, to learn not only about HIV/AIDS prevention but also about how to ensure that women with disabilities have access to health services and information. For this training, the Regional Director of Health Program services joined disabled women leaders, providing information and engaging in direct dialogue on how to reach women and girls with disabilities.

A number of promising action items emerged from Christiana’s advocacy efforts to increase access to health care services among people with disabilities. The regional and district health directorates pledged to collaborate with Christiana’s organization, the Wa Association of the Deaf, to recruit full-time sign language interpreters and provide training for nurses in selected health centers and hospitals. These are first steps toward ensuring that women with disabilities are included in the national commitment to HIV/AIDS prevention. On their part, disabled women pledged to take information and inclusion strategies back to their respective regions, and to support women with disabilities to access health services.