By Alhaji “Pjay” Mohammed (YES 2007-2008, Ghana, hosted by AFS in Alexandria, VA)
Ten years ago, I left the borders of my country, Ghana, in West Africa, for the very first time. As a person with a disability who walks with a pair of crutches, the courage that drove me to accept the challenge to travel 6000 miles away also propelled me to try newer, different tasks very alien to my imagination and capabilities. I discovered no limits. That’s why on the first night of arrival to my host family, I jumped into their swimming pool even though it was my first time seeing a pool. “How hard can swimming be?” I thought. Lo and behold, the inevitable almost happened but I was not discouraged or scared to try again. That Christmas, my host mom gave me the best present ever: she signed me up for swimming lessons. To crown it all, she told me about a dream she had, following my lessons, about me swimming in the Olympics. It took me 10 years to know that the lessons I had that winter did not make me Michael Phelps, but it strengthened me, empowered me, renewed me, and opened my eyes to see my abilities in the presence of my disability.
Two years ago, I attended a YES alumni social entrepreneurship workshop in the same city, Alexandria, VA, where I lived for my exchange, and the memories of my experiences inspired me to do something as a changemaker. I remembered the joy of swimming without the aid of my crutches, the power I felt when I was in the water and the courage I had after swimming. This heartfelt experience inspired me to apply for a YES alumni grant for my project ‘Dare-To-Dive’, a project whose main objective was to organize swimming lessons for people with disabilities (PwDs) at my university in Ghana, where I studied for my Masters of Philosophy in Marketing. I was awarded the grant and began my project in September 2017.
PwDs are one of the most marginalized groups in my country. Many of them come from very impoverished backgrounds, coupled with the unavailability of accessible facilities to accommodate their disabilities. This has greatly affected their self-esteem and confidence. Consequently, most of them do not even attempt to learn any new skills. Within this society where they feel excluded, some end up as homeless street beggars and heavily dependent on other people. The few who do not drop out of school are woefully shy and harbor a bad inferiority complex among their peers in school. There is very little motivation and opportunities for them to interact with other non-disabled students or to participate in the University’s recreational and sports programs. This issue has had a toll on the students’ academic performance, social life, health (in the form of depression) as well as their general wellbeing.
As a person with a disability and a former executive of the campus association of disabled students, I had a first-hand experience of this problem. To help boost the confidence and self-esteem of these students, I put together a team of volunteers to organize this project (Dare-To-Dive) to provide people with disabilities in my school the opportunity to learn a survival skill while having fun, live a healthy life, and interact with other students. The project is also intended to afford them the opportunity to participate in the University’s sporting and recreational events, while simultaneously raising awareness in our community on the need to include PwDs in the programs of the school.
Through the partnership and support of the University of Ghana Sports Directorate, the University of Ghana Office of Students with Special Needs, and the Campus Association of Students with Special Needs, we have successfully trained 15 PwDs to learn how to swim. More participants are expected to be trained by the end of the academic year. The responses from the partners, trainers, participants and the general public have been very positive. I remember, on the first day of their lessons, many of the participants raised concerns about the shyness to expose their bodies. Today, they all feel very confident about their bodies, and have embraced their disabilities to reveal their unique abilities. There are some who swim even better than me now. Some media houses have contacted us to cover a story about this project. We are hoping this could raise societal awareness as well as spark a conversation about social inclusion for PwDs in Ghana and beyond.I'd also like to thank AFS for their support and the US State Department for funding this project.
Please like our page on Facebook: @projectdaretodive and follow us on Twitter: @dare2dive. Share your personal experiences on these networks to encourage these young swimmers. You can also contact us via email: [email protected]