Of all the children Dr. Abena Tannor has met over the years, one little girl always comes to mind.
Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, the child Abena met had severely weak limbs and was unable to walk.
“Her father’s family wanted to get rid of, to kill her,” says Abena, a family physician in Ghana and a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow. “But her mother decided to keep her.”
After the girl’s brother was sent away to live with his grandparents in the belief that distance would keep him from catching the disease, he died of malaria. The girl’s father divorced her mother shortly thereafter.
“Now the girl’s mother is just trying to support and care for her daughter,” Abena says. “A girl who has now lost her brother and her father.”
The girl’s case is not a new one in Ghana, Abena explains.
“Some people believe that anyone who works with a disabled patient is cursed and will have a child with a disability as well,” Abena says.
“These children are looked down on and treated poorly, all because of a lack of knowledge.”
Abena, who founded the Stepout Foundation in 2017, is working today to challenge these misconceptions. Her volunteer work involves, among other projects, visiting schools and providing teachers and students with the skills they need to identify and support children with disabilities.
One challenge Abena has faced over the years is a lack of resources and facilities to support people with disabilities across the country.
“We have physical therapy centers, but many are inadequate,” Abena explains. “We need rehab centers with speech and occupational therapists, with dedicated nurses and doctors.”
In spite of these challenges, Abena is hopeful that volunteers can work together to make a meaningful difference in the lives of people with disabilities.
“It’s important to remember that people with disabilities can improve their condition and their quality of life,” Abena says. “We can give them hope, we can assure them that someone cares.”
But working with people with disabilities requires a unique set of skills, Abena explains.
“You have to be a good listener and educator,” she says. “You can’t look down on those with disabilities. You have to empathize with them.”
Over the years, Abena has met people who fail to see the value in her volunteer work, especially when money is tight. To them she responds simply that “the benefit to the community far outweighs the money you could get from the work.”
“Seeing the smile on people’s faces when you’ve made a connection with them, when you’ve given them hope — it’s deeply fulfilling.”
Interested in Abena’s work? Learn how you can volunteer to serve Africa on our #YALIServes page.