Handi-Capable: Changing the story around disabilities in Senegal

Feb 10, 2020

Mamadou Adama is working to empower youth and transform the conversation around disabilities.

By Sarah Holcomb

Ayoung computer engineer based in Senegal, Mamadou Adama was living his dream. Yet the image that always seemed to flash in front of him on television screens sent a different message — one that said everyone with disabilities had the same unfortunate destiny.

“In our societies, when we hear the word “disability,” we tend to think of begging, poverty, pity, illiteracy, donations, dependence… we think this way because that’s the picture the media always show,” he explains.

Handi-Capable— the organization Mamadou founded in 2018 to empower young people with disabilities through positive stories and career training—started with a mission to answer the question:

Why won’t media give hope to people who are disabled and their parents by spreading more success stories of people with disabilities who, despite prejudices and obstacles, have succeeded?

The journey to Handi-Capable began two decades earlier in Koula, a village located in Foutah Djallon in the Republic of Guinea, where Mamadou was born. After contracting polio, he became handicapped at age two. His father passed away one year later.

Mamadou’s mother dared to take her son to school despite his disability, and never treated him differently from his siblings — he still went to the fields like everyone else. He remembers that some people would get angry with his mother for making Mamadou work, but he respects her for it.

Mamadou Adama, founder of Handi-Capable in Senegal.

“Thanks to her, I learned at a very early age not to consider myself a handicapped person,” the entrepreneur says. He doesn’t remember his siblings and friends feeling sorry for him. “I grew up in an environment where I used to forget I was ‘different.’”

While he still faced stigmatization and isolation, his family’s support encouraged him to pursue his dream of becoming an engineer.

Mamadou understands the struggles that youth with disabilities face in education, particularly in West Africa, because he overcame them. “I know what it means to be excluded from society,” he says, “and I know what the importance of education in general and for people who are disabled in particular.”

People with disabilities are less likely to ever attend school or possess basic literacy skills, according to a UNESCO report. In 2015, around 16 percent of 25 to 64-year-olds who have not completed high school had at least one kind of disability. Youth with disabilities experience the same challenges, to different degrees, in almost every country in the world — discrimination, schooling, and professional integration, Mamadou says.

And although Senegal ratified the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities nearly a decade ago, people with disabilities still find it hard to access basic services — health and education — or to earn a regular income, according to Humanity and Inclusion.

“In most African societies, living with a disability equals giving up on your dreams, and especially begging in the streets,” Mamadou explains. “Some people even say that having a handicapped child is a divine punishment. My disability didn’t prevent my parents from raising me the same way they raised my siblings and particularly from taking me to school…Unfortunately, not every disabled person had the chance to go to school like me.”

After Mamadou passed his middle school entrance exam, his family discovered that it would be impossible for him to make the 12 kilometer trek to school every day. Thinking he would have to drop out, his mother was heartbroken. Fortunately, together with his siblings, she was able to find a solution for him to complete his studies elsewhere.

Catalyzing Change

Mamadou completed high school, graduated with a degree in computer science from the University of Labé, and moved to Senegal to earn his master’s degree and graduate as a computer science engineer. He achieved his coveted career.

Yet every time he would see images of the disabled in the media— images that evoked pity and victimhood— negative thoughts rushed through his head. He would repeatedly remind himself “I lead a normal life just like everyone else.”

“I know there are many other handicapped persons who, just like me, have worked very hard and have succeeded to overcome many difficulties in order to thrive today despite their disability.”

Looking around, Mamadou saw that other organizations helping disabled youth were aimed at driving donations and perpetuating the idea that the disabled are victims to be pitied. He wanted to create something different: an organization that puts people with disabilities at the center of the fight for their inclusion. He wanted to empower young people to make their own change.

Beyond empowering youth with disabilities, Mamadou wants to reframe the conversation and change the way people view disabilities in the first place. His strategy: highlight “success stories” to inspire youth.

A video projection session for children with disabilities held in the NGINDI center in Dakar, Senegal.

Seeking to change the image that the media was spreading, he wondered if it was possible to find enough positive images — enough “success stories” from those with disabilities — to share.

“To my great surprise, I met many people who are true heroes, models of courage and hope,” he recalls.

He created a video featuring El Hadj Matar, a three-time champion of Handi-BasquetBall in Senegal, who is now also an architect. (“I was amazed by the method he uses to get to the top of buildings,” Mamadou says). While every kind of work may not be suited for those with disabilities, the majority can be, he says. Many other individuals, including doctors and lawyers, are interested in sharing their stories in future episodes.

Mamadou shares from his own experience to promote education for children with disabilities, demonstrating that success is possible.

Handi-Capable also contributes to empowering people with disabilities by training those who can be trained in digital professions, such as computer maintenance, website design, phone repair, online shop management. As a computer scientist, Mamadou knew that self-employment is generally easier in the field. “It’s a field that doesn’t require a lot of physical strength and it’s profitable,” he says. “So it’s very suitable for us.”

He conducts trainings on digital professions with friends in the electronics industry. They organized paid courses that people with disabilities could attend for free.

Throughout this journey, Mamadou was surprised by the “sensitivity of the community,” including many people who have relatives, friends, or partners with disabilities. He sees an opportunity to build a movement.

“There are a lot of people who want to get involved to make a difference, all they need is a good leadership,” He says. “It is this leadership that I am trying to bring with Handi-Capable.”

Progress is gradual —in addition to developing his idea, Mamadou is also working to provide for his family and support himself. Looking for additional support, he applied to the 2019 Ashoka and American Express Emerging Innovators Bootcamp in Dakar, where he connected with other changemakers. “I am working hard to make this happen,” he says, hoping to soon bring other organizations on board.

In 20 years, Mamadou hopes the situation will look very different. He’s working towards a world where no child is disabled just because they missed a vaccine that could have protected them, there are enough schools adapted to all types of disabilities, and every person with a disability has a profession.

“I hope that by then,” he says, “no person with a disability will have to beg in order to survive.”

For youth with disabilities, Mamadou has a message:

Dear young disabled … Every single person you see has a handicap whether it is visible or not. The most important thing is the mindset. Never let anyone make you give up on your dreams. Struggle to achieve your goals! Not every so-called “normal” person is meant to succeed in life and not every person with a disability is meant to fail, so why not have hope and do everything in your power to succeed? …I know that deep inside you, you have that desire to live a better life, to work, to feel loved and accepted. I know that deep inside you, you have that hope of success. Don’t let anyone reach your soul and turn off the light sparkling inside.”

Mamadou Adama is a social entrepreneur who participated in the 2019 Ashoka and American Express Emerging Innovators Bootcamp in Dakar, Senegal.

Special thanks to Abdoulaye Aziz Soumare for contributing to this story.

Handi-Capable: Changing the story around disabilities in Senegal was originally published in A New Game on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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