FREETOWN — According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 10 percent of people in Sierra Leone are living with a disability. But for the first time in the country's history, people living with disabilities are now working in the police force. The newly hired officers are hoping to inspire others.
Sheka Conteh is one of four disabled officers working at the communications center of the Sierra Leone police force. He answers calls from the public, similar to a 911 service in North America.
Conteh has a background in information technology and says when he saw the police were hiring disabled people, he jumped at the opportunity to apply.
He says it has been a challenging journey to find employment as a disabled person. He contracted polio at the age of seven.
"I've faced a lot discrimination in any community I find myself, but I've started to see positive changes, because it is now minimizing, especially in areas of employment," he said.
Francis Munu, the inspector general of the Sierra Leone police, says, when the Disability Act was passed in 2011, providing employment for those with disabilities became a priority for the police force. He says those with disabilities bring a different face to the job.
"So that people can understand that policing is not just about using force all the time, we also need to engage people and communities, we need to get people to have trust and confidence in the police," he explained.
He says the program has been running for several months and has been going smoothly.
None of the officers are currently working on the street but that could happen in the future, says Munu.
"We want to change the way people perceive disability issues and even the way disabled perceive themselves or their fellow disabled persons. So if they see some of their colleagues working, being gainfully employed, then they are also motivated to work hard at school and try to invest in themselves," he said.
Change is something Kabba Franklyne Bangura, president of the Sierra Leone union on disability issues, wants to see too.
Bangura says police force hirings are a step in the right direction but more needs to be done, specifically for unemployment. According to a Handicap International study, 95 percent of those with disabilities in Sierra Leone are unemployed.
Legacy of civil war
Many people became disabled during the country's civil war in the 1990's when rebel fighters amputated peoples' limbs.
Bangura says the organization is doing what it can to make life easier for the disabled community. Currently, the union is creating profiles of people who are qualified to work in various job sectors. The plan is to have a national press conference to showcase their skills to potential employers this spring.
"Here are many disabled we have profiled - we have their documents, we have their qualifications, here they are, see what they possess and see what they can do if given the opportunity," Bangura said.
He adds that the 2011 Disability Act still has not been implemented. The act calls for the creation of a national commission which was just recently established. Bangura hopes things will now start to move at a quicker pace for those with disabilities.
Back at the call center, Shekah Conteh says what he wants most is to inspire others living with disabilities.
"The advice I can give is any opportunity that comes their way, let them grab it and make good use of it as I have done," he said.