Representations of Rehabilitation: Experiences of Disability in Africa, 1940-1963

The 1946 film, Pitaniko, provides an interesting starting position to launch this discussion of disability and rehabilitation in late-colonial Africa. The film conveys a colonial ideology towards disability, rather than an African perspective. It centres the Cyrene Mission, an Anglican mission station near Bulawayo (Rhodesia) founded in 1938, which used art as a means of rehabilitation. Initially, disability is framed as an opportunity and, later, a symbol that illustrates and enhances the mission of Cyrene. Assistance for disabled people becomes one plank of the broader “civilising mission” perpetuated by Anglican religious figures. Existing scholarship on disability and colonialism often portrays disabled people as marginalised and passive, regarded as potential beneficiaries of assistance policies created during the colonial period. In contrast, this article explores the ways disabled people were actively involved in the development of policies. 

Between 1943 and 1947, the West African War Council (WAWC) and the government of the Gold Coast (colonial Ghana) developed a rehabilitation program for African soldiers disabled by combat injuries during World War II. The West African initiative drew heavily on the British model of social orthopaedics, which sought to rehabilitate disabled individuals economically by reintegrating them into the existing workforce. Under this model, economic participation defined citizenship. This was of particular importance in Britain, where combat had resulted in labour shortages. Moving away from previous reliance on charities, as occurred in the aftermath of World War I, the British state assumed central control over rehabilitation. The project launched in the Gold Coast during this period sought to implement comparable policies of economic rehabilitation administered by the colonial state. 

The rehabilitation program was developed in Accra, one of the Gold Coast’s urban centres. The program aimed to reintegrate disabled soldiers into the national economy, mirroring the British program. Initially, the program worked with soldiers from the Gold Coast Regiment of the West African Frontier Force but by 1945, had expanded to include soldiers from the other British West African colonies (Nigeria, Gambia, and Sierra Leone), as well as a few civilians. Despite the success of the rehabilitation scheme between 1943 and 1945, by 1947 it had been abandoned by the colonial government. Why was the project abandoned? There were three reasons: urban economic hardship, the rehabilitees’ peasant backgrounds, and the colonial doctrine of community development. Fundamentally, the colonial state opposed the transformation of traditional Africans into modern workers, necessitated by the program’s emphasis on economic participation.

After independence, the Ghanaian government implemented a similar program with greater success. The post-independence government of Kwame Nkrumah effectively expanded rehabilitation into rural districts and had targeted 13,000 disabled Ghanaians by 1963. Specifically, through an Industrial Rehabilitation Unit (IRU), limb-fitting centre in Accra, and eight Rural Rehabilitation Units (RRUs) spread throughout the rest of the country. The Government developed the RRUs and registration teams fanned out across the country to register disabled Ghanaians on a regional basis. While shedding light on the colonial-era failure, this program should be studied because it demonstrated that rehabilitation could work under the right conditions.

Unlike colonial officials, Nkrumah did not worry about preserving traditional African communities against modernisation and wage labour. In fact, he wanted to recruit 1.1 million Ghanaians into the workforce as part of his drive for socialist industrialisation. Rehabilitation would allow Nkrumah to integrate disabled Ghanaians into this project, contributing to national development by unlocking their economic productivity. To this end, the Government absorbed rehabilitation into the paradigm of community development – the opposite stance of the colonial governments of the 1940s. Furthermore, Nkrumah did not face funding or staff shortages because, as of 1964, his government controlled £43million in reserves inherited from the British Government. Thus, there was ample financial potential to fund the success of disability rehabilitation. Simultaneously, rehabilitees faced relatively better job prospects than the ex-soldiers of the 1940s, largely because Nkrumah created a host of state-owned factories, as well as several state farms. This is an argument supported by Omari (1970). Therefore, the rehabilitation program of the 1960s for disabled Ghanaians was socially and economically progressive, reinforcing the development of an independent state through an interaction between top-down processes and bottom-up autonomy – two factors antithetical to the colonial institutions of the 1940s. 

Other innovative practices of rehabilitation throughout colonial and postcolonial Africa, from Algeria to Ghana and Rhodesia, were developed in the metropole and subsequently transferred to the colonies through exchanges with colonial subjects. This disrupted traditional practices of assistance. The WAWC and Ghanaian government accepted, incorporated, and expanded British colonial models of disability rehabilitation. They de-stigmatised physical disability by incorporating disabled people into the national economy. Nkrumah “discovered” disability shortly after independence when he began to gather and jail the destitute and beggars, only to find that many of them were disabled. Alarmed by this revelation, in late 1960, Nkrumah recruited John Wilson, Director of Britain’s Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind, to survey the state of disability in Ghana and develop a comprehensive rehabilitation program. Wilson’s recommendations prompted the revival of the colonial scheme and its extension to rural areas. Civil life was re-defined by economic productivity and inclusion in the nation. 

Likewise, in the context of colonial Algeria, as argued by Brégain, blind people took an active role in disability policy construction. From the 1930s, greater equality between those who were disabled in colonising metropoles and the colonised was achieved. Many of them subjectively considered themselves as second-class French citizens, abandoned by the French powers. Blind Algerian Muslims became French citizens only in 1946 and it was only in 1952 that recognition of the economic and social rights of all blind people in Algeria was legislated. Building upon Algerian success, similar policy measures were introduced in Tunisia in 1955. Policies of assistance were shaped by an exchange between the coloniser and colony. Nevertheless, the role of exchanges within Empires, between other Empires and internationally through NGOs, such as the American Foundation for Overseas Blind, informed the identity, inclusionary citizenship, and rehabilitation of individuals and communities.

It is necessary to understand how disability was conceptualised and how policy was developed in colonial and postcolonial states. At the beginning of the 20th century, colonialism was inextricably associated with conceptions of disability and the African body more broadly. The citizenship of disabled people requires comprehensive analysis, as it was not dependent solely on their status and on decisions of the state. Scholars such as Grech (2015) have extrapolated the uniform picture of the negative consequences of colonisation on disabled people, from physical violence and mutilation to medical interventions. Increasingly, this negative portrayal can be nuanced through an understanding of the agency of colonised communities to achieve social egalitarian policies. Indeed, it was the construction of multiple actors, including the state, non-governmental institutions, citizens, and non-citizens, and took the shape of multiple forms over time. 

Written by Jack Bennett


Brégain, Gildas. “Colonialism and Disability: The Situation of Blind People in Colonised Algeria.” Alter 10, 2 (2016): 148–67.

Devlieger, Patrick J., ‘Representations of Physical Disability in Colonial Zimbabwe: The Cyrene Mission and Pitaniko, the Film of Cyrene’, Disability and Society, Vol. 13, No. 5 (1998): 709-724.

Grech, S. “Decolonising Eurocentric disability studies: Why colonialism matters in the disability and global south debate.” Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture 21, 1 (2015): 6 – 21.

Grischow, J. D. Shaping tradition: Civil society, Community and Development in Colonial Northern Ghana, 1899-1957. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

Grischow, J. D. “Kwame Nkrumah, disability and rehabilitation in Ghana, 1957-1966,” Journal of African History 52, 2. (2011): 179-99.

Omari, T. Peter. Kwame Nkrumah: The Anatomy of an African Dictatorship. Accra: African Publishing Corporation, 1970.

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