When she was only 10 years old, Gertrude Oforiwa Fefoame realized that she could no longer read her classroom’s blackboard at her school in eastern Ghana. She eventually learned that she had retinal dystrophy, an irreversible degenerative condition that would take most of her sight, excluding some sensitivity to sunlight.
Being blind has not stopped Getty, as she likes to be called, forging ahead in life. (She was born in 1957.) She has dedicated her adulthood to advocating for women with disabilities. She was recently elected to a third term on the committee that monitors the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD), which was adopted in 2006 and aims to change attitudes and approaches to people with disabilities and establish their rights. She is also Sightsavers’ global advocacy manager for social inclusion. (Sightsavers is a British-based nonprofit organization that works globally, treating eye conditions and advocating for people with visual impairments and other disabilities.) Previously, Getty chaired the World Blind Union’s committee on children and advocated for inclusive education and children’s rights. The union represents the estimated 235 million blind and partly sighted people around the world.
When Getty was first elected to the UN committee, in 2018, she was part of wave that shifted its composition to mostly women through #EqualUN, Sightsavers’ campaign to increase the representation of women and people with disabilities in official forums.
The UN committee consists of 18 experts who track how countries carry out the convention on disability rights.
“Today as we speak, women are represented in all the major working groups of the committee, and I not only chair the working group on women and girls with disabilities, but I also chair the task force on the general comment of CRPD’s Article 27, on work and employment,” Getty said in a Zoom interview with PassBlue from her office in Accra, Ghana, in July. She lives in a town east of the capital, in a “mountainous area in a cooler place.” It’s where her formal education started, through missionaries there.
“As a woman with disability from a developing country like Ghana and having experienced disability discrimination, I will continue to work to address the stigma and denial of rights faced by people with disabilities,” she added. “The increased representation of women has meant there are more voices at the table now, championing the issues of women and girls with disabilities.”
The conversation with Getty has been edited and condensed for clarity. It is part of PassBlue’s Women as Changemakers series, interviewing women who are making profound marks worldwide. — LAURA E. KIRKPATRICK
PassBlue: When you’ve spoken about how you became an advocate for people with disabilities, you’ve been very open about the despair you experienced because of your own disability, and how one person changed this for you. How did that happen?
Getty: While at a school for the blind, after secondary school, I encountered some disgusting and devastating attitudes from distant family and others in my community. I was 17 years old and had these thoughts that probably I’m good for nothing, I might as well end my life, I couldn’t go far. My eventual mentor, a woman my age named Grace Preko, had heard I was there and came to see me. Grace inspired me in so many ways; she too was blind, she was at the teachers’ training college. After listening to her, in my heart I said: I have a future. What I can give to humanity is to mentor others, inspire others, motivate others, be a role model because there could be many who are in the same state I was in. I have no idea how the future would have been without Grace. I give back what I have received.
PassBlue: Can you tell us about any women you’ve reached in the way that Grace Preko, your mentor, reached you?
Getty: I think I’ve touched countless lives, many in different ways. I received the first empowerment award from the World Blind Union for women’s empowerment and am very proud of that. I can mention Ana Peláez Narváez, the only person with disability who is serving on the committee for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw). In 2000, I was the chairperson of the children’s committee of the World Blind Union, and Ana was the representative from Europe. I deputized Ana to go to an important meeting. This was her first experience in international work and started her on where she is today. María Soledad Cisternas, the UN special envoy on disability and accessibility, said to me in 2016, “Getty, you made such an impression on me.” María was on the committee that drafted the CPRD and a chair on its committee.
PassBlue: Your work features advocacy on inclusion, helping people surmount the stigma of disability that prevents their full participation in all walks of life. What is the best route to equal inclusion?
Getty: I use both professional and informal approaches. Formally, I engage so that we can fight for the rights of persons with disabilities. I advocate so that the areas I focus on, like women, are included in the UN systems, so that governments are accountable to include women with disabilities in any leadership and decision-making. Through Sightsavers, I went to Nigeria as part of community work. There I met a blind woman who lived in a farming community. Her family worked cracking groundnuts — growing and shelling peanuts. Cracking is an easy process. This lady was seated apart, lonely and neglected, while the rest of the family was busy cracking the peanuts. After some time together, I asked, “Why are you not also cracking the nuts?” She said: “I don’t know how to do it. I don’t think I can do it.” In my work clothes, I collected some of the nuts and sat by her, opening some with her. She said, “Oh, so I can do this.” I said, “Yes, and many other things.” The next time I visited, she wasn’t only cracking groundnuts, she’d moved into taking care of children, when others had gone to farm or to market. She understood that she can do anything, facing down her family’s previous attitude of, “You are sick, we’ll take care of you.” Because how much care can one take, and how for long will that care be given?
PassBlue: You are a member of the UN committee that monitors the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD). What more can the UN do to ensure the rights of people with disabilities?
Getty: Be inclusive of women with disabilities at the decision-making places, so that they are part of the things that happen — in the UN as a whole. Because if the barriers are not removed, then we can’t get the inclusion we want. If data is not aggregated and women with disabilities not brought into the platform, the planning will continue to be vague. Women with disabilities continue to face discrimination. Although one out of five women has a disability globally, we are three times less likely to be educated or to have access to health care; two times less likely to be employed or to have access to technology. In 2018, an additional six women joined the [CRPD] committee. The 2020 elections to the committee brought gender parity, and with the most recent elections, this will continue through 2025. We want to work together and ensure that we don’t lose this representation. Now we have diversity in terms of disability and in geographical representation.
PassBlue: The Generation Equality Forum, convened by the UN Women agency in 2021 in Mexico City and Paris to push hard for women’s progress in society, made more than 2,700 commitments to prioritize gender equality. Yet only 100 specifically address and/or include a focus on disability. Is the feminist movement inclusive enough?
Getty: No, the feminist movement is not inclusive enough. I worked hard with UN Women, the Inclusive Generation Equality Collective (IGEC) and other groups to make sure that the Generation Equality forum was accessible, but it wasn’t. Women with disabilities were not visible enough, from the process through the outcomes, and now we can improve this. I work to empower women with disabilities to appreciate that while only around 100 commitments from the Generation Equality forum mention them, because we are first and foremost women, we have a stake in every provision from the forum. It’s an ongoing process, a big job, and difficult work lies ahead. I will not relent but keep on engaging, reflecting and addressing. Let me use this interview to encourage every reader to support our advocacy. It’s not only the voices of women and girls with disabilities, of feminist and girls with disabilities, that can bring this change, but everybody who knows the right thing to do needs to take part. Without our contribution, humanity loses.
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Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.