Undying struggle for the disabled people in Kenya

By NGARI GICHUKI and ISAAC MESO

On July 23, 1964, a group of people with disabilities went to State House, Nairobi, to seek audience with Kenya’s first Prime Minister, Jomo Kenyatta, who later became President.

They wanted him to intervene for what they termed as extreme exclusion from society. The group ended up spending the whole night outside State House, but they never got a chance to see him.

This was one of the earliest attempts in independent Kenya by people living with disabilities to lobby for their rights. That they never addressed the President is telling on the importance the government attached to the matter. Those camping at the scene were drawn from the Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya and the Christen Blinden Mission (CBM).

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So started a long history of struggle for recognition, which somewhat came to fruition with the enactment of a new Constitution in 2010 that largely guarantees equal rights for everyone.

The discrimination of disabled persons could have stemmed from the community’s expectations that a person with bigger muscles and healthier limbs meant a better working force to benefit the society. It also meant a stronger fighting force to defend it.

 Kenya’s earliest recorded initiative to care for persons with disability dates back to the Second World War when the Salvation Army established a programme to rehabilitate men blinded in the war. The initiative later became the country’s first school for the blind. However, the most vocal and noticeable society can be traced to 1953, with the creation of the first institution to give specialised services to people with disabilities. The Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya was formed by the colonial Legislative Council. A number of non-governmental organisations were also formed, which included the CBM.

Over the next two decades, disability activism grew in leaps and bounds up to the late 1980s when a number of national and community based organisations began advocacy work. Incidentally, major efforts in disability activism coincided with events elsewhere in the world where similar organisations were being formed to press for equal rights.

These groups were mainly formed and managed by persons with disabilities to advocate and to pressurise for services and participation in national development. The oldest such organisation was the Kenya Union for The Blind established in 1959. Others who have been in operation for some time include the Kenya National Association of the Deaf (1987) and the Kenya Society of the Physically Handicapped (1986).

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Intellectual disabilities

Over time, organisations have developed a strong advocacy voice especially on the rights of people with intellectual disabilities. The oldest organisation is the Kenya Association for Intellectually Handicapped. Others include the Autism Society of Kenya and the Kenya Society for the Mentally Handicapped.

In 1989, the national associations and 130 community based organisations came together to form United Disabled Persons of Kenya (UDPK). UDPK became an umbrella body with a strong voice and negotiation capacity to champion disability rights. With its wide network, the organisation mobilises people with disabilities and other stakeholders for events such as the UN International Day for Persons with Disabilities.

It was responsible for the nomination of Josephine Sinyo, a blind woman, into Parliament in 1999. In 1990, the government appointed a task force to review all laws relating to people with disabilities. The People with Disabilities Act that was enacted in 2003 is the product of this recommendation of this task force.

Samuel Tororei, the former vice chairman of the Association of Persons with Disability Kenya, says the ‘Bomas Draft’ was a good step by the government in showing support for disabled. The draft was one among several that were drawn during Kenya’s push for a new constitution in the past decade.

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“The government has shown initiative in honouring our push for recognition into law but it is failing in implementation. We would be happy with more, but this is still a good step for us,” he says. In the current constitution, their rights are enshrined in Chapter 4, Article 18.

Jomo Kenyatta Nairobi Physically Disabled of Kenya Christen Blinden Mission Legislative Council UN