John Thébault

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1993
This description of John Thébault's work was prepared when John Thébault was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1993 .


Catholic priest Jean Thébault is building a self-help movement of Ghana's disabled street beggars that enables them to support themselves and assist each other without begging.

The New Idea

Jean Thébault, a Catholic priest, believes that charity, when limited in meaning to giving money, increases dependence and diminishes the dignity and self-respect of disabled people. The most important dimension of rehabilitation, according to "Father John," as he is known by all in Ghana, is psychological, and occurs when the individual takes on responsibility for himself or herself as well as for others. Father John has put this philosophy into practice with a simple and powerful program that provides wheelchairs upon the recipient's presentation of a viable "life plan" that involves a livelihood other than begging. The wheelchair program is the stepping stone to a mutual support association for the disabled that initiates new members by helping him or her to realize that life plan and by enabling the new member to assist others in realizing their life plans. Participants develop a sense of their potential to become independent, self-supporting members of a caring community and become role models for other disabled people. As a group, they constitute the rump of a social movement for the psychological emancipation of West Africa's disabled street beggars.

The Problem

Ghana, facing pervasive economic problems, has few resources for assisting or rehabilitating disabled people. However, the attitudes and prejudices shared by both able-bodied people and disabled individuals toward themselves constitute an even greater obstacle to their autonomy and development. These attitudes start early, in the home. Parents are typically ashamed of their disabled children, and may hide them in the home so that even neighbors do not know they exist. They do not imagine that disabled children are worth educating or could ever become self-sufficient members of society. Growing up in this demoralizing atmosphere, disabled people naturally come to share the perception which society has of them.Because they are not encouraged to develop ambitions or skills, disabled people have trouble entering the workforce and supporting themselves. For many disabled people who are not supported by their families, begging becomes the only way of life. Able-bodied people become accustomed to viewing disabled people only as beggars and burdens on society. Once a person has become dependent on charity and assumes the mindset of a beggar, rehabilitation becomes nearly impossible. They are highly unlikely to use charitable contributions to lift themselves out of this lifestyle. Father John explains that for many disabled people, owning a wheelchair is viewed merely as a means of finding a more lucrative spot to beg.

The Strategy

Under the umbrella of the Hope for Life Association of Handicapped Brothers and Sisters, Father John contracts with independent welders to use inexpensive local materials to make wheelchairs and handcarts for disabled people. The wheelchairs serve as a lure to bring disabled individuals to the Association. When they arrive requesting wheelchairs, Father John or one of the members talks to them about their plans and abilities, and asks them what they want to do with their lives. The typical response is that they cannot do anything else but beg.At this point, a period of counseling and bargaining begins in which the Association holds out the promise of a wheelchair, but only upon the presentation of a viable "life plan" that would enable the person to make a livelihood other than begging. Through this period, which differs in length from two or three sessions to several months, the Association projects positive options for the person's human and economic potential by helping him or her to identify skills and abilities. Those who receive wheelchairs and embark on their new careers must accept the responsibility to find and support others in need of help. Those with an aptitude are drawn into ongoing counseling roles at the Association. Everyone is encouraged to form groups to start businesses and provide each other with financial and moral support. With funds provided through a partnership with a European church, the Association also operates a small education fund to provide temporary help with education and health expenses for members' children.The Association grows steadily through direct recruitment of beggars on the streets by members. It also conducts general public education outreach through its film, "Once I'm Not Begging," and media exposure of the accomplishments of Hope for Life members, who give interviews in which they speak with pride of their work and abilities to contribute to their extended families. This public education work has attracted some prominent personalities to support the Association, including a Miss Ghana beauty queen, who used her position to spread the Hope for Life message. The Association has also created Friends of Hope for Life for able-bodied people who share in the values and goals and want to contribute friendship and assistance with individual problems. This group has been particularly helpful in finding markets for items produced by members of Hope for Life and in fundraising.

The Person

A French Catholic priest, Father John has been in West Africa since 1961. During his sixteen years as a parish priest for a large rural territory in the Republic of Benin (then Dahomey), he undertook many rural development projects. A gifted linguist, he started a literacy program, for example, using local languages, that is still operating, and he wrote the first grammar text and other school books in a local language. After what he describes succinctly as "a tough time during the Marxist revolution," Father John left Benin in 1977 and spent four years in Paris. Wanting to share the experiences of African laborers, he held a variety of manual labor jobs until he was called back to serve in Ghana.Over the past decade, Father John has assisted a number of marginalized groups and individuals. He works with street children, for example, visiting the families of boys who have been arrested for small crimes and assisting them with legal expenses. He also conducts vocational training for them.Poor health compelled Father John to take early retirement in 1995. With Hope for Life well established, he could take retirement without a worry for its future. Shortly before his departure from Ghana, in July 1995, Father John was awarded the French National Order of Merit in a ceremony at the French ambassador's residence.