BRATTLEBORO -- Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie admits she had some misconceptions about America before she got here.
A disability rights advocate, she left her native Ghana in 2011 to study at the School for International Training and she couldn't wait to see how the United States made life simple for people with physical limitations. When she arrived, however, she learned the American situation is fairly similar to that in her African homeland.
Komabu-Pomeyie, earning her master's degree in sustainable development with a concentration in policy analysis and advocacy, said her country's treatment of people with disabilities has improved and the United States still has progress to make.
"Compared to America, I don't really see any difference in terms of attitude. I had my own (notions) before coming, thinking that in this place disabled people have access to everything," she said. "There is this mentality about having everything, not having need for anything in America. This is a picture portrayed to us back there, especially in developing countries.
"But I got here and I realized it's different," she added.
Komabu-Pomeyie is at SIT on full scholarship from the Ford Foundation and said she chose the school because of its impressive approach to social justice. She also said the lecturers are down-to-earth and focus on how policies affect people. The wife and mother of twins (one boy and one girl) also started interning at the Vermont Center for Independent Living, a cross-disability rights organization, six weeks ago.
Kim Brittenham, a community access coordinator with VCIL, said she loves Komabu-Pomeyie's passion, energy and drive.
"She is an amazing storyteller and our staff has had so much pleasure in knowing her," she said. "It is the most fun I could have at my job. I've really enjoyed working with her just these past six weeks."
Brittenham said Komabu-Pomeyie has been working with VCIL and its national partner, the National Council on Independent Living, to push for the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international treaty that President Barack Obama signed last year.
Komabu-Pomeyie said she is very proud of the changes that have occurred in Ghana, though she said more work must be done. The nation has passed many new laws, including one passed 2006 pertaining specifically to people with disabilities. She said there is also a Disability Counsel within the government, a common fund and several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated to the cause.
"What we are striving for now is we are trying to say, ‘All these things are paper and it's not really happening on the ground,'" she said from her VCIL office on Wednesday. "That is what we are fighting for, the implementation of all these laws."
Komabu-Pomeyie cited the Americans with Disabilities Act as an example of a meaningful law being enforced. She said the ADA, signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, bans discrimination of American citizens with disabilities and requires accommodations in public buildings.
She also said ADA allows people to be held responsible for making and maintaining the accommodations. This is something she has learned during her stay.
Komabu-Pomeyie mentioned that one of her colleagues made a huge difference by working to get a ramp installed at the Brattleboro Post Office.
"If I try negotiate that in Ghana, which I have tried before in my town, and I fail just because there is this mentality that it is so difficult to do, especially when you're talking about fixing an existing building," she said.
But that is exactly the type of change Komabu-Pomeyie, who has a physical disability in her legs and has trouble walking, wants to make back home once she graduates in June.
"When I'm done at SIT I'm going back to Ghana to help my people and especially work on policies," she said.
Komabu-Pomeyie is an educator by trade and teaches French in her homeland. One of the problems she has experienced is getting physical access to classrooms and that is one of the issues she would like to address.
"In Ghana, we have the blind and the deaf and the rest of the disabilities in special schools. But we [the physically-disabled] are perceived to be mainstream. We seem to mainstream so automatically, what is happening in Ghana is this free education is for everybody but it's somehow not for all of us," she said. "The government hasn't changed the old buildings that we have. ... So you can imagine there is a group of people that are going to be suffering and who are going to be left behind."
She said a parent is allowed to carry a student up the schoolhouse steps to a classroom but this task becomes harder as the child grows older, and thus bigger.
Komabu-Pomeyie's disability also made it difficult to try to find proper living arrangements. Her scholarship is set up to pay her rent in full but Brattleboro is riddled with old buildings that provide some complications for a person with disabilities. She said the places in the area that are vacant are inaccessible and the accessible facilities are already occupied. Her electric mobility scooter also poses a problem for renters who don't why how they will store it during the winter.
She has been living in Putney with the Chechile family fellow members of the Apathe Christian Fellowship Church. She said the host family has been "so, so good to me."
Though she traveled home to visit family during the summer, Komabu-Pomeyie has been invited to Washington, D.C., on three different occasions during her time in the United States. The first time was during the conference on the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities to help in the discussions about how important it is to both the developed and developing world, while the second involved her receiving a World of Difference Award from The International Alliance for Women. She was selected as one of 100 women in the world making changes in small ways.
Her third trip to the nation's capital was at the invitation of some Sudanese refugees to attend a symposium called "Women and Genocide in the 21st Century: The Case of Darfur." Komabu-Pomeyie said it was about building strategies for sustainable change in Sudan and women's empowerment in Darfur and she spoke about how people became disabled due to the civil war's aftermath. It fit in nicely with her work as a policy and advocacy intern.
Brittenham is impressed by Komabu-Pomeyie and said it is great to have someone with her knowledge and drive.
"It's igniting," she said. "It really reminds me about how important this work is."
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.