Securing a national ID: The struggle of PWDs

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Sample of the National Identity Card

By Alfred Koroma

Fifty-year old Abu Bakarr Koroma almost gave up collecting his national ID from the National Civil Registration Authority’s head office.

He had gone there to get the national ID but needed to make certain corrections on his name which had been wrongly spelt during the 2017 biometric voter registration, part of the data the civil registration uses to verify registrants before issuing them the card.

His first two names Abu Bakarr had been joined as a compound name. He wanted them separated before collecting the ID.

 Mr. Koroma is a polio victim, suffering from a disabling disease caused by poliovirus that mainly affects people at an early, mostly under 5 years of age, according to WHO. He carries two clutches which he relies on to make movement from one place to another. Koroma’s inability to easily climb the steps of any long story building is palpable.

He falls under a minority group known as Persons with disabilities (PWDs), a group which according to UN, include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

The group forms 1.3 percent of the total population of Sierra Leone based on UNFPA’s analysis of the 2015 population census.

Because of this physical condition, Mr. Koroma did not expect correcting his identity data at the Civil Registration office would require him to move from the bottom to the top floor of the office.

However, having waited for hours at the bottom floor, the polio victim said he was told to climb to the general Manager’s office if he needed to make any changes on his personal information.

“It was during the rainy season and the steps were naked and slippery, he recalled his struggle to NCRAs General Manager’s office. “At one point, I almost fell. It was very-very much challenging for me.”

NCRA Head office in Freetown

 The National Civil Registration Authority {NCRA} headquarter where the polio victim had gone to get his identity card is a three-story building with its step hanging outside, high above the porch floor. The building has no elevator and its step no proper handrail, making it challenging for people like Mr. Koroma to climb any of the floors of the building.

“They would not have allowed me to climb that step. They would have taken an affirmative action and found a way to attend to me down stairs.”

“I believe this is what all other disable people encounter. I’m sure that barrier is part of the reasons why most persons with disability have not collected the ID.”

Accessibility and low sensitization  

In a separate interview at a later date, another person living with disability, Momoh Mansaray would tell me NCRA actually has a staff assigned to attend to persons living with disabilities whenever any of them visits their office, but many of his colleagues don’t know. Lack of sensitization is where the problem lies, Mansaray said. 

Further interaction with more persons living with disabilities reveals the group is predominantly represented among the high number Sierra Leoneans who have not collected their national ID. Lack of finance to pay for the ID and fear of stigma or other obstacles they might face in the process of getting the identity are among the reasons fueling the low demand of the ID among persons living with disabilities.

For instance, Mariatu Kargbo, another polio victim told Concord Times she’s aware of the importance of the ID, but she hasn’t collected it for two reasons: “First of all, I don’t have the money and secondly, when I see NCRA’s step I’m afraid of climbing it.”

She and others are gripped with the fear that NCRA’s headquarter is the only center to collect the ID and accessing the card will require everyone to climb the top floor of the three-story building.

Lack of information on the ID system is one key factor aiding its low demand among persons living with disabilities.  If any sensitization has been done on how persons with disabilities can access the national ID, then it’s absolutely not enough.

“I can tell you emphatically that many of us persons living with disabilities have not collected the ID. If I can grade, about 90 percent of us have not collected it,” says Mr. Koroma who happens to be the National Secretary General for the Sierra Leone Union of Persons on Disabilities Issues or SLUDI.

He said part of the things responsible for that have to do with affordability and accessibility and lack of knowledge about the ID system. He explained that they all have peculiar needs when it comes to absorbing public information, and those needs have not been targeted in the information put out to sensitize the public about the identity system.

 The information you design for hearing impaired which should be in sign language format, does not work for a visually impaired which has to be in braille printing. And it is not the same for a physically challenged person, an albino, epilepsy etc.

When formatting information, you have to capture all these peculiarities which is lacking for now. It is a big challenge for us, he said.

Concord Times spoke to 17 Persons living with disabilities in Sierra Leone about the collection of the national ID. Some were interviewed in Freetown and the others in Waterloo, one of the largest towns in Sierra Leone, located about 20 miles away from the capital city.

Concord Time spoke to a number of PWDs about the national ID during the commemoration International Day for Persons with Disabilities in December 2023.

Waterloo is the town where the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, an event that often that often gather a large number of persons with disabilities from various parts of the country was commemorated in December last year. Most of the interviews with persons living with disabilities were conducted in Waterloo during the commemoration.

Out of 17 PWDs interviewed, only 4 (24 percent) said they have collected the national ID whiles 13 (76 percent) said they have not.

Of the 13 people who have not collected the ID, 5 (38 percent) claimed they have not heard about it before while all those who collected theirs appeared to be concerned about the cost and the challenges involved in the process of getting the ID in the various centers.

They said NCRA registration and verification centers are not disable friendly.

Affordability

In the previous article published by Concord Times about the low drive for the national ID, almost all the citizens interviewed in general, repeatedly pointed at the cost of the document as the main barrier preventing them from getting the identity card.

Many complained that paying NLE145 ($5) for the national ID is too much.

For persons living with disabilities, affordability of the ID is a more serious barrier. There is no specific data to point at, but it’s clear, majority of Sierra Leoneans living with disabilities belong to the street begging industry, and survive by the pittance they collect for the day. It’s almost impossible to save from that little to gather the sum of money required to acquire the national identity document.

Twelve (62 percent) of those interviewed about the collection of the identity document complained about the cost of the ID with some lamenting they know about the ID, but they cannot afford to pay for it.

As their Secretary General put it: the cost of the ID is not affordable for persons living with disabilities to easily pay for. Most persons living with disabilities worries about what they eat for the day.

Image from the article “why businesses shouldn’t overlook disability inclusion in DEI efforts”

 Making the ID inclusive

Launched in January 2023, the National ID is a biometric identity system that identifies every citizen living in the country. It has been introduced to ensure authentication and consistency in the storage of personal information of individuals, such as, names, and dates of birth of citizens.

 Following its launching, Government of Sierra Leone made the ID mandatory to access various public services including transacting with financial institutions, vehicle registration and licensing and recruitment into public and private institutions.

But as the ID becomes essential to accessing public services, minority groups like persons living with disabilities risk being further marginalized if the barriers preventing them from accessing the ID system are not mitigated.

In other for such a minority group not to be left out, an inclusive and affordable ID system has to be created to reduce the chances of us being marginalized, SLUDI’s Secretary General said. “This goes with understanding the barriers we face in trying to access the identity document.”

Making an ID system inclusive according to World Bank’s Identification for Development & Persons with Disabilities, requires a comprehensive approach to overcome barriers to enrollment and use for persons with disabilities. This, World Bank says, involves adhering to common principles of disability-inclusion, nondiscrimination, accessibility, reasonable accommodation, and universal design.

Locally, some of those recommendations are already entailed in the provisions of the 2011 Persons with Disability Act. The law provides for persons living with disabilities be entitled to a barrier free environment to enable them have access to buildings, roads and other social amenities, assistive devices and other equipment to assist their mobility without discrimination.

If implemented, the Act will address all the issues of barriers, stigmas PWDs face in the country.

But, Mr. Koroma said since the law was passed over a decade ago, attention has not been paid to its implementation. Otherwise, he said “I would not have encountered the barrier that almost prevented me from getting the ID at the National Civil Registration Office.”

Mr. Koroma succeeded in getting the ID with his personal data corrected, but recalls the process was too challenging for his condition.

 “It was a painful experience I got as a person with disability. I would not want to go through the same,” he said, “If you have been to NCRA’s office, you will know what I am talking about. The step is naked. It’s not disable friendly, and if nothing is done about it, most of my colleagues may not be able to collect their ID.”

I recommend that NCRA look into the Act and try to formulate a policy around disability that will inform them to adequately cater for persons with disabilities in the campaign for national identification and encourage them to get the ID, he stated.

Key findings

In January this year, NCRA commenced the production and issuance of the scrutinized, multi-purpose Biometric Identity Card known as the National Identity Card, but the turnout of people living with disabilities to collect the ID has been very low.

From interviews conducted with 17 persons living with disabilities, only 4 (24 percent) had collected the ID at the time whiles 13 (76 percent) had not.

Concord Times found out that the cost of getting the ID and inadequate education or sensitization of the disable community are key factors preventing them from collecting the ID.

Out of the total number of those interview, 12 (62 percent) complained about the cost of the ID with some saying they know about the ID, but they cannot afford to pay for it.

And of the 13 people who have not collected the ID, 5 (38 percent) claimed they have not heard about it before.

 All those who said they have collected theirs also complained the ID is expensive and that NCRA’s registration and verification centers are not disable friendly.

This is probably because much attention has not been paid to the implementation of the 2011 Persons with Disability Act. The law provides for persons with disabilities to be entitled to a barrier free environment to enable them have access to buildings, roads and other social amenities, assistive devices and other equipment to assist their mobility.

This report was produced under the DPI Africa Journalism Fellowship Programme, organized by the Media Foundation for West Africa with support from Co-Develop.

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