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By Daniel J. Vance


  Our KLM jet fell from the African sky and into the steam bath of Accra, Ghana, where the temperature was 90 and the air more smothering than a wet-hot cotton towel. Here I was in March on a "Wheels for the World" trip along with 26 others to help distribute wheelchairs, walkers and crutches to Africans in the cities of Tema and Somanya.

  Wheels for the World was the first organization of any kind to begin distributing wheelchairs and walkers in great numbers to third world countries. "Since 1994 we have given out 23,000 wheelchairs in 65 countries," said Wheels for the World Director John Wern over the telephone from his Los Angeles-area office. "Ghana was our first country and over the last decade we've distributed 5,000 wheelchairs there."

  This faith-based organization also visits places like Cuba, Romania and Vietnam, bringing along physical and occupational therapists to custom fit used wheelchairs collected from Americans.

  To me, Ghana was a culture jolt, a feeling somewhat akin to taking a cold shower.

  Newborn infants with a disability often are abandoned in the jungle to die. Ghanaians aren't a cruel people: most just lack access to modern medical care or the means to pay. My own daughter, born with spina bifida, would have died many times over had she been born in Ghana.

  I saw a 20-year-old woman with elephantiasis whose leg was swollen three times normal. For $2,000 she could have been cured and on her feet walking. Yet the average person earns only $500 annually.

  Then along came the big blue bus from Ada that brought us a dozen or so polio survivors. It's common to see people crawling the byways of Ghana on hands and knees, with sandals or flip-flops acting as pads. It's quite another sight to digest in person.

  The whole time we heard not one complaint, not one whimper, no whines. These Ghanaians are friendly, grateful, and quick to smile, though not one square inch of their beautiful land is wheelchair accessible. I was told that even the government ministry overseeing disability is on the third floor of a building, with no elevators. To reach the departure gate, we carried wheelchair-using members of our party up two flights of stairs at the nation's newly renovated international airport.

  And then our KLM jet ascended into the sky. I'm already planning to return. 

   For more, see www.danieljvance.com or www.wheelsfortheworld.org