At eight years old, Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie was diagnosed with polio after being administered an expired vaccination. Disabled by the virus and unable to walk on her own, she became part of a community of stigmatized “others” in her village in Ghana, where disabled children and individuals are marginalized. What’s worse: Komabu-Pomeyie was a girl.
However, her mother—a librarian—understood the power of education and was determined to see her daughter live a full life, and so she carried Komabu-Pomeyie to and from school every day on her back. “What she went through, it wasn't easy. I saw it myself. Children like me were not exposed to the community. They were covered up,” says Komabu-Pomeyie.
Today, she is taking her education to new heights as she works toward a PhD in educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Vermont, and through the non-profit she founded—Enlightening and Empowering People with Disabilities in Africa—she is in the process of building an accessible and inclusive school in Ghana for students of all abilities. For her work as an education and disabilities advocate, Komabu-Pomeyie was recently honored with the prestigious International Service Award from the Association of University Centers on Disabilities at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a life-changing moment. It’s a huge award. It means the work I have been doing from my village has been recognized internationally. Every place that I step my feet, people recognize my work. That makes it so huge for me and it challenges me to have people looking up to me,” she says, adding her gratitude for UVM professor Maria Avila for nominating her for the award.
Komabu-Pomeyie recalls the day she became empowered to pursue her life’s work. In 2006, she suffered an accident on a staircase at her college, which was physically inaccessible for her to navigate safely. Bedridden for months, her school did nothing to assist her recovery or rectify the accessibility issues. “That was the wakeup call that this is enough.”
Since then, she has gained a media presence in Ghana speaking up about the issue and traveled the world developing and enforcing inclusive policies for women and marginalized persons with disabilities. Among a competitive pool of international changemakers, Komabu-Pomeyie was selected as a Ford International Education Fellow, which enabled her to come to Vermont in 2011 and earn a master’s degree in sustainable development, with a concentration in policy analysis and advocacy, from the School for International Training. At UVM, she teaches the Culture of Disability course offered by the Center on Disability and Community Inclusion, and serves on committees to improve the university’s inclusion and accessibility initiatives.
At the conclusion of her doctoral program, Komabu-Pomeyie plans to return to Ghana to continue her work and assist with the school. She may, perhaps, enter politics or the government one day with the goal of enacting real, meaningful change through laws. Though she acknowledges the odds back home are stacked against her, she believes her doctorate will be crucial in gaining access to a seat at the policy table.
“I'm very much aware of my status: I'm a person with disabilities and I am a woman—and being a woman alone is so huge. I'm making sure that I don't leave any loophole behind so that nobody can question what I’m able to do.”