Let's create a society that is accessible for all

By Irungu Houghton | Friday, Aug 17th 2018 at 23:37
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Lydia Chege is on a mission. Her voice stood out among the 7,000 primary school head teachers who attended this week’s Annual Conference. She spoke a day after the Cabinet approved the new Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2018. The issue of disability remains out of sight of most Kenyans. This lack of interest and stigma opens the door for neglect and abuse.

Eight years ago, my family came face to face with the challenges of disability when an adult family member lost his eyesight in two separate savage criminal attacks. The Kenya School of the Blind staff and a community of people living with visual disabilities became our lifeline. An abrupt introduction to special needs, assistive devices and the power of empathy followed. He adapted quickly and is a powerful force in his family and community.

One in ten Kenyans are differently abled. Nearly 4.5 million Kenyans grapple daily with a society and an economy not prepared for people with mobility, visual, hearing, intellectual or other disabilities. They are yet to experience the warmth of a Constitution that promises them dignity, access, facilities and affirmative action to elective and appointive positions. A few Kenyans still hold onto falsehoods and myths that disability is a curse or an act of God for moral mistake or sin. Others still use terms like deaf and dumb, handicapped, cripples and disabled rather than people with a specific disability. Both groups missed the last decade of our quiet cultural revolution.

Like elsewhere in the world, previous laws and policies have focused on physical disability, employment and creating institutions and programs for people with special needs. While this has transformed lives of children and adults locked out of education, health, jobs and public participation, it has not challenged society to be more inclusive. The special needs approach may have created islands of safety and opportunity, but it has not transformed society. This was the point Ms Chege of the Kenya Institute of Special Education made this week. Channeling children with disabilities into special units and schools will not help them achieve in a society that is not ready for them. There is no special society out there. The challenge posed by the Constitution is to create a society and economy accessible for all, and especially, people with disabilities.

We now need to become intentional and create inclusive schools, workplaces, courts, markets and entertainment houses. The first step is to increase the opportunities for people with disabilities to participate everywhere. New efforts to increase the representation of people with disabilities to at least 5 per cent in public offices must now be matched by private and not for profit agencies. We must demand performance targets, employment quotas, technology, communication and forums for dialogue and become familiar and related with people with disability associations. We must advocate for ramps, elevators, washrooms, parking slots, wheel-chair friendly pavements and traffic lights that work for the visually impaired.

It is in this context that the Bill is important. It is expected that the Bill will expand affirmative action. It should also penalise discrimination including denial of citizenship and identity documents. Introducing the right of people with disabilities and especially those with mental health challenges to take legal decisions about their lives is critical.

The Bill must draw more from wisdom of the trail blazers. Men and women like the late J A M Karanja, Hon Isaac Mwaura, Poet and Lawyer Kibaya Laibuta and Justice Mumbi Ngugi as well as younger leaders like Ashura Michael, Samantha Nkirote McKenzie and many others who have demonstrated the power of speaking publicly and authentically as people with disabilities.

Framed as a human rights issue, the Bill seeks the full realisation of the rights of persons with disabilities and places an obligation on the national and county governments to protect and promote them. We must take time to read and act on it. 

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. Twitter: @irunguhoughton  

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