People with disabilities in East Africa face discrimination, and pressure is mounting on governments and the private sector to act.
Kenya’s constitution reserves special seats for the disabled at the Senate, national and county assemblies; these measures have done little to encouage a trickle-down effect to the rest of the population and private sector.
A number of incentives failed to encourage the private sector to employ people with disabilities. In Africa, the Southern African Development Community treaty is unique for being the one to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability.
Human rights activists in East Africa are lobbying governments and private sector organizations to do more to address the plight of people with disabilities, a majority of whom are among the poorest in East Africa.
Discrimination against people with disabilities has meant that many find difficulty accessing opportunities for employment and self-advancement. The situation has led to a vicious circle. Employers decry the lack of usable skills among many people with disabilities, the result of a long history of neglect and discrimination. Yet, a majority of those who are supposed to be in learning institutions are simply absent, while even accessing health care is a challenge.
“Employers want to see that you have the skills. We have so many people who are lame but they are lecturers. They are not employed because they are disabled, but because they can deliver,” said Andrew Luzze, the executive director of the East African Business Council.
Isaac Mwaura is a Kenyan nominated member of parliament representing the interests of people with disabilities. Much more needs to be done to ensure that they can get jobs and comfortably access workplaces to improve their lot, he said. “Many buildings are not accessible, disabled people are still finding challenges getting jobs, raising their families, and getting prompt treatment.”
The efforts of various organizations and lobby groups have resulted in the East African Community Persons with Disability Bill 2014, which is before the East African Legislative Assembly. The bill seeks to harmonize services rendered to people with disabilities in the region, creating uniformity in the treatment they get in all member states of the community — Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.
While Kenya is relatively ahead of other East African countries in legal protections for persons with disabilities, the bill, if made into law, will ensure that such treatment is standardized across the region.
“There will be a reporting mechanism. It creates a common platform where people can discuss disability issues. We also want to create an East African parliamentary forum – structures that would ensure there is accountability and there is that push, even to the heads of state summit,” said Mwaura.
In Kenya, the Constitution allows political parties to fill 12 slots of MPs that are specifically designed to cater for special interest groups — for example women, persons with disabilities, and marginalized communities. Parties take up these slots according to their
relative party strength in parliament following elections. These members of parliament who represent special interests are referred to as nominated MPs.
Rwanda has a provision in its laws for one person with disability to represent the
country as a member of parliament at the East African Legislative Assembly; this provision is absent in the other partner states.
According to Abubakar Zein Abubakar, a member of parliament at the regional assembly, Rwanda is also the only country in the region whose regulations demand that construction of public buildings must take into account the needs of persons with disabilities.
Kenya has created special funds that give monthly financial support to several categories of disadvantaged groups, including the families of people with disabilities. This initiative is not present in other partner states. And while Kenyan law demands that 5 percent of all public appointments be reserved for people with disabilities, Burundi has no such provision.
Speaking to AFKInsider on the sidelines of a Nairobi conference to discuss issues affecting the disabled, Mwaura said employers needed to change their attitude toward employment of people with disabilities. “Specific needs may arise when you need software on a computer, but those are things that are peripheral. Just give the person a chance. Even for those who have gone all the way to university, a majority of them are still not employed.”
The new bill seeks to ensure that international standards are incorporated in local legislation in the five partner states of the East African Community. These countries will be tasked to take measures — including legislative, administrative, judicial and other practical measures — to protect and enforce the rights of people with disabilities.
Lady Justice Monica Mbaru of the High Court in Kenya said that the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has created the conceptual framework within which disability concerns can be addressed at international, regional and national levels. All EAC members have ratified the convention.
Addressing the Second EAC Conference on Persons with Disabilities held in Nairobi recently, the judge said that the national debate within EAC countries should now focus on the extent to which the convention has already been given domestic effect. A first step in this process, she said, is the domestication of the convention into national law, either through piecemeal reforms of existing laws or the adoption of a comprehensive “omnibus” disability law.
In Africa, the Southern African Development Community treaty is unique for being the only treaty to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Kenya’s constitution reserves special seats for persons with disabilities at the Senate, National Assembly and county assemblies; these measures have however done little to ensure a trickle-down effect to the rest of the population and private sector.
This is despite the existence of a number of incentives to encourage the private sector to employ persons with disabilities. “Section 15 and 16 of the Disability Act clearly provide that if you modify an environment to accommodate persons with disabilities, then you can claim tax rebate of 50 percent of the cost you incur, and if you employ a person with disability you can claim 25 percent of the salary you pay in tax refund. That is supposed to encourage private sector members to employ persons with disabilities,” said Mwaura.
When it comes to government employment, the law demands that at least 5 percent of all positions be reserved for the disabled, a threshold that is rarely achieved in most departments and ministries.
The new EAC Persons with Disability Bill aims to encourage governments to put more of these incentives in place, including tax privileges for affected persons. “All goods, items, implements or equipment bought by persons with disabilities shall be exempt from custom duties, port charges and any other partner states tax which would in any way defeat the purpose of or increase the cost of the said items/goods and equipments,” the draft bill reads.
“Governments should also be more flexible and allow blind people to benefit from tax exemptions when importing private vehicles meant for their own use, which is currently difficult because they say you are incapable of driving,” said Francis Mwangi, a participant at the Nairobi conference.