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Exploring the issues faced by slum dwellers who need assistive technology in Sierra Leone

Disability and poverty are interlinked – a fact that has been consistently proven by research. Living with a disability in conditions of poverty is extremely difficult – particularly in the Global South – and assistive technology (AT) is often unavailable, or is a poor fit for individuals’ needs. GDI Hub CEO Vicki Austin focused her PhD on exploring these issues in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Vicki interviewing a female wheelchair user in Sierra Leone. .

Addressing the issues faced by the very poorest people around the world in terms of AT is an under-researched area. Research that covers the overlap between poverty, disability and issues around AT is incredibly limited, particularly in relation to urban informal settlements in the Global South.

In order to understand how life could improve for people who are poor and disabled in the Global South, a greater understanding of the issues they are facing is needed.

Connecting with the urban poor

In response to this, Vicki Austin focused her PhD on understanding these issues in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

“Disability is one of the most common experiences of life. If we're lucky enough to get old, all of us will experience impairment at some point in our lives,” Vicki explained. “It's been proven many times that disability and poverty are both a cause and consequence of each other. Improving life for poor disabled people is a matter of social justice – this is an enormous group of people who should not be forgotten or ignored.”

Vicki’s research in Sierra Leone was done in parallel with work her colleague, Julian Walker, was doing in Banjarmasin in South Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Together, they were concerned about how to engage with disabled people who are slum dwellers. They felt that working through disability organisations would generate a similar narrative to what has been heard before. So instead, they decided to work with organisations for the urban poor and in Sierra Leone, Austin worked with the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDURP).

She started with a capability approach to understand the needs and wants of slum dwellers, including their experiences and access points to support and AT. The results showed overwhelmingly that there was no or low access to AT, and that the AT people did have access to was of a poor standard.

Vicki also found that there are a range of different types of informal settlements in and around Freetown, and collective action has been a very useful tool for some slum dwellers to gain access to AT. One settlement in Freetown is a camp where survivors of polio live, and they have set up an organisation that has gained a lot of traction to help people who have survived the disease. The research found that 80% of people in this settlement had access to AT. Conversely, in a larger settlement where disabled people live but have not met or gathered in some way, less than 10% of people had access to AT.

An unexpected outcome of the research was that urban poor organisations such as FEDURP – who had not previously engaged specifically on the topic of disability – have started to become more actively involved in disability through their work.

Next steps

Having found an overall lack of AT provision for disabled people in Sierra Leone, Vicki wanted to explore the international picture of stakeholders working in AT. She has found there is a disconnect between global work being done on AT, and local level concerns. One aspect of this is that lists of what constitute AT are frequently old and outdated, but these lists can be political and difficult to change. With technology proliferating, some visually impaired people now use mobile apps instead of white canes. Video conferencing software has integrated AT. Yet mobile phones and other devices often don’t appear on lists of AT. This is problematic in terms of being able to provide adequate AT for specific needs.

Building on the work she’s done so far, Vicki wants to explore what the disability justice framework should look like, and interrogate what AT is being developed. “Research shows us that AT is there for what it enables,” said Austin. “But what does wellbeing or a good life actually mean to people? We often talk about AT enabling access to jobs, but our research shows that is also enables people to feel dignified and recognised. Even being asked if they need AT is a recognition of their citizenship.”

Vicki believes that looking at the ‘AT for what?’ question will also lead towards defining a disability justice framework. “AT is the mechanism, and justice is the outcome. So what should the disability justice framework look like?” Vicki says. “We need to define this to ensure global stakeholders are all moving in the same direction.”

Vicki has been working in social development for more than 20 years, having worked on social justice with three Mayors of London, and as the former Head of the London 2012 Paralympic Legacy. She co-founded the GDI Hub in 2016 and has been working as the CEO ever since, working on her PhD at the same time.

“Leading the GDI Hub has enabled me to bring some practical thinking into my PhD,” Austin explained. “It's enabled my practice, and the leadership of the programme overall, to be more robustly connected to research, literature and the academic trajectory of it.

We’re very lucky to be running the biggest AT programme in the world at the moment, engaging with issues at the community level, and connecting them to very strategic, high level international work. It’s a real privilege.”