Liberia: “UMU Campus Not Disabled-Friendly”

UMU Junior Class president, Matthew Fomgbeh, and special needs student, Victor Zonto


— Special needs student asserts, urges administration to act

Members of the physically challenged community in Liberia do face a huge challenge in accessing public facilities across the country. This is primarily because these public facilities are not designed to accommodate them and make their movements easy.

The physically challenged, also known in some quarters as the disabled, see this situation as deliberate discrimination against them, and campuses of universities and colleges are at the center of this ‘act of discrimination.’

Victor Zonto, a physically challenged student at the United Methodist University (UMU), said the campuses of the university are not disabled friendly because he and his colleagues find it extremely challenging to attend their classes

Zonto, who is the acting leader of the Special Needs Students at UMU, said it is very challenging for students with special needs to attend some of their classes because they have to climb stairways to access those classes. 

“It takes the mercies of some of our friends to take us to those classes. They have to literally help us get to those classes,” Zonto told the Daily Observer at a fundraiser held recently at UMU’s Students Center for students with special needs. The fundraising rally was an initiative of the leadership of the Junior Class of the institution. 

He noted that challenges for people with disabilities at the university discourage them from obtaining higher education.

“In addition to the financial burdens that we are constantly faced with, another major issue for us is getting around the campus. We are literally learning at the mercy of others. There is no suitable pathway for people with disabilities at universities in the country,” Zonto said. “And we do not seem to be recognized by society as having these things available for us.”

He wants UMU, and other universities’ administrations to make available steps and ramps, where necessary, at their campuses public buildings in order for the disabled to have access.

Like Zonto, other advocates think people should avoid putting steps within a floor in a building, where possible. Where steps are necessary, provide a ramp or platform lift as appropriate.

Sixteen percent of Liberia’s population has disabilities, according to a UNICEF study conducted in 1997. This is out of a population of at least 4 million people. They are often marginalized and discriminated against, making it hard to access the education system, the job market, and health services.

Zonto blamed the government for a lack of support for the community. “The disabled students who want to go to school are not many yet and are not being supported by this government,” he said.

As the nation develops and improves, accessible lifts in all new buildings that have more than one floor should be provided, making sure that the lifts are designed to best practice guidelines.

Zonto, who is visually impaired and a student of education, said that members of his community are not guaranteed formal education at institutions of higher learning because of the challenges associated with it. “There is no support for the visually impaired in Liberia,” he said. 

“For the blind to get educated, it is very difficult here. We’re supposed to be educated through the Braille System, but this is not available to a majority of us,” he said.

Braille is a tactile writing system used by people who are visually impaired. It is traditionally

written on embossed paper. Braille users can read computer screens and other electronic supports using refreshable Braille displays.

Zonto and his visually impaired colleagues have to carry voice recorders on campus to record lectures, which they later listen to. “This is tedious and time-consuming and sadly, not everyone who has access to a voice recorder is able to go through that long process,” he said.

The head of the University of Liberia Association Of Disabled Students, Perkins Boye, told the Daily Observer in an interview in 2021 that campuses at UL are not disabled-friendly.

“At times, people with disabilities miss out on classes because we are often denied by our

colleagues who are not physically challenged to help us climb the stairs.”

Human rights Activists say in order to live dignified life in any society, people with disabilities must should have access to services and devices that facilitate their participation in the community on an equal basis with others.

People with different types of disabilities require differentiated services, including assistive

equipment such as motorized wheelchairs and elevators in public buildings may be essential for some. 

All people with disabilities have the right to access the physical environment, including buildings, roads, schools, housing, medical facilities, workplaces, and other facilities—giving them the rights to live independently and be included fully in their communities.

But this is not the case in Liberia, Matthew Fomgbeh, the president of UMU Junior Class said. “Our special needs brothers need help. The administration needs to make the environment accessible to them,” Fomgbeh said. “The challenges they are facing are enormous. There is a financial burden and then after paying their school fees they have to be assisted by fellow students before getting to their class. This is difficult.”

He called on the UMU administration to look into the plight of the special needs students. 

In 2012, Liberia signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.

Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities stipulate that

countries must take steps to ensure that persons with disabilities access an inclusive, quality and free primary and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live.

Liberia developed an Act that established a National Commission on Disabilities to address the rights of people in that category. However, legal protection of the rights of disabled people is still very weak.  The constitution also guarantees the rights of every Liberian, including people with disabilities.

Article 6 of the Constitution states that, “The Republic shall, because of the vital role assigned to the individual citizen under this Constitution for the social, economic and political wellbeing of Liberia, provide equal access to educational opportunities and facilities for all citizens to the extent of available resources.”

Fomgbeh noted that school administration and the government needs to ensure that the educational sector of the country is made in a way that is disabled-friendly. “Education is the best way to obtain a better life, and our brothers and sisters who are people with special needs need similar opportunities to strive.