Persons with disabilities

Two people with disabilities hold hands at a beach. 

| Pool

The state of disability inclusion in Kenya: An analysis of the past 60 years

As the nation celebrates 60 years of independence, the journey of disability advocacy and inclusion has also evolved over the years. The struggle for inclusion of people with disabilities dates back to the early 1960s. 

An early story is that of a 1959 Nairobi wedding of John Kimuyu - a blind man from Makueni - and Ruth Holloway - a white woman, who together broke what were then insurmountable barriers and brought discussions of disability, race and love to the forefront. 

Barely a year earlier, the Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya (APDK) had been formed, inspired by the need to provide rehabilitation services to World War II veterans who had been maimed during the war. APDK is currently involved in the provision of mobility equipment and therapy.

But before going further down the winding road of history, it is important to realise that the definition of disability has also evolved over the years. In the pre-independence era, the prevalent definition of disability was the so-called moral/religious model.

 This model defined disability as a mystical 'act of God', where a person with a disability was seen as being punished for a sin committed. This was highly stigmatising, and people with disabilities living in such societies were marginalised, while others were abandoned.

The second model of definition is the medical model, in which disability is seen as an illness - a defect. In this definition, a person with a disability must play the role of the sick person if they are to receive any form of support.

Consequently, the major shortcoming of this model is that it fails to distinguish between impairment and illness, i.e. the presence of impairments that do not necessarily represent a health problem. For example, my physical disability is a disability, not a disease.

As our societies have modernised and developed, so has our understanding of disability. The next model of disability is the charity model, in which people with disabilities are seen as victims of circumstance who should be pitied. Admittedly, the lives of many disabled people have been transformed by the work of people and organisations who have used charity as a tool to help them. 

Charity model

This is particularly evident in the area of education and the provision of assistive devices. While we can't and shouldn't question the hearts that help, the charity model promotes an over-reliance on the goodwill of people to support people with disabilities and little on the rights of people with disabilities. Consequently, it also fails to address the role of society in creating barriers for people with disabilities.

The rights-based model is the one from which all the struggles and voices of disability advocacy stem. This model defines disability as a social construct, created as a result of the environment and attitudes that exist. 

It recognises these barriers and gives people with disabilities rights that promote their independence and equal role in society. For example, if a wheelchair user cannot access a building because there is no ramp, this is considered a physical barrier. It doesn't require medical intervention. Instead, it requires that a ramp be installed in that building.

Back to the journey of disability inclusion. 

The country's first organisation of persons with disabilities (OPD) - the Kenya Union of the Blind - was formed in 1960 to advocate for the rights of the visually impaired. They later marched to Harambee House to have their voices and plight heard by the then government of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. 

This led to the formation of the Ngala Mwendwa Committee for the Care and Rehabilitation of the Disabled. Its recommendations formed the blueprint for rehabilitation programmes, including a recommendation that the government fund special schools. Prof Simeon Ominde's Kenya Education Commission also took the conversation further, proposing that children with mild disabilities be integrated into mainstream schools.

Road accident

Fast-forward to 1980, when then President Moi presided over a harambee in support of the disabled during the National Year of the Disabled, which raised about Sh20 million to establish the National Fund for the Disabled of Kenya (NFDK), whose patron is every sitting president. In 1986, the Kenya Institute of Special Education (KISE) was established to promote access to quality education for learners with special needs.

Further progress was to be made in the so-called African Decade of Persons with Disabilities (1999-2009). In December 2003, President Kibaki, barely out of his wheelchair following a road accident, signed into law the first ever disability rights bill - the Persons with Disabilities Act 2003. 

This law set out measures to protect the rights of people with disabilities in Kenya. The Act also established the first government body to deal exclusively with disability issues - the National Council for Persons with Disabilities (NCPWD). 

Some of the services provided by the NCPWD include registration, provision of assistive devices, educational support and various economic empowerment initiatives. At the time of the enactment of the Disability Act, I was not a person with a disability and did not think much about the plight of persons with disabilities. This was to change later in 2008 when I became disabled as a result of a road accident.

The Council was later allocated Sh200 million to set up its fund called the National Development Fund for Persons with Disabilities (NDFPWD). 

This fund provides the much needed resources to implement the Council's programmes. In recognition of the many expenses incurred by persons with disabilities as a result of their disability, the Income Tax Deductions and Exemptions Order 2010 was enacted. Persons with disabilities who are earning are entitled to an income tax exemption on the first Sh150,000 of their monthly income.

The Government of Kenya also reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the public service when it introduced the disability mainstreaming indicator in the performance contract of ministries, departments and agencies in 2009. This meant that ministries, departments and agencies would report and be assessed on the extent of their efforts to promote disability inclusion. 

To improve the economic well-being of people with disabilities, the government launched the Access to Government Procurement Opportunities (AGPO) programme in 2013, which sets aside 30 per cent of procurement opportunities for women, youth and people with disabilities.

The current government, through its Bottom-Up Economic Transformative Agenda (BeTA), has also outlined various programmes it intends to implement for people with disabilities. These include 100 per cent NHIF coverage for persons with disabilities, 15 per cent of all publicly funded bursaries for learners with disabilities, integration of mainstream schools for learners with disabilities, and allocation of an appropriate share of the Hustlers Fund for persons with disabilities.

Shortcomings and aspirations

It has indeed been a long time coming over the past six decades. Kenya has made great strides on disability issues, a reputation that saw it co-host the first Global Disability Summit with the UK in 2018.

This progressive reputation is also built on the premise that the 2010 Constitution affirms the rights of persons with disabilities in Article 54 under the Bill of Rights and the domestication of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

The Constitution of Kenya also affirms in Article 7 the State's obligation to promote the use of Kenyan Sign Language, Braille and other technologies that facilitate access to information for persons with disabilities. Kenya also made history in 2022 by becoming the first African country to adopt a digital accessibility standard for people with disabilities - KS ISO 2952.

A lot has been done, but there's still more to do. First, our demographics are changing. Disability is increasing due to factors such as road traffic accidents and lifestyle diseases. In addition, as medicine advances, our life expectancy will increase, meaning that the prevalence of disability in an ageing population will increase in the future.

At present, as a result of continued awareness raising, more and more people with disabilities are seeking services, stretching the budget to the limit. It is the wish of persons with disabilities that the budget be increased to a level commensurate with the growing demand.

On the disability mainstreaming front, persons with disabilities continue to face barriers in accessing services. A new NCPWD report entitled Disability Mainstreaming Status Report for the FY2021/2022 shows that public institutions have yet to fully implement efforts to promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities in their institutions.

Similarly, in terms of access to employment, the Public Service Commission's Compliance with the Values and Principles in Articles 10 and 232 of the Constitution for FY2021/22 report shows that people with disabilities make up only 1.4 per cent of the public workforce - still below the five per cent threshold in the Constitution.

In the same vein, it is difficult to push for compliance on disability issues in county governments, commissions and independent offices as they are not covered by the government's performance contracting framework.

The recent removal of the disability mainstreaming sub-indicator from the performance contracting guidelines for the 2023/2024 financial year risks reversing the gains made over the years on disability mainstreaming.

Fortunately, the Office of the Prime Cabinet Secretary has expressed concern about this and is developing a Public Service Performance Management Bill that will enshrine the performance contracting framework in law and cover institutions at all levels of government.

In the AGPO programme, people with disabilities are yet to fully enjoy the fruits of the programme's design. A 2018 analysis by Hivos on the impact of Kenya's Access to Government Procurement Opportunities Law on youth, women and persons with disabilities found that only five per cent of businesses under the programme are owned by persons with disabilities, compared to women's 41 per cent and youth's 54 per cent.

People with disabilities are the least likely to win tenders - 12 per cent compared to women's 52 per cent and youth's 36 per cent. This challenge is largely due to the lack of access to credit for persons with disabilities who wish to take advantage of these procurement opportunities. 

The government, through the NCPWD, has recently partnered with KCB Bank to provide LPO financing to businesses owned by persons with disabilities.

People with albinism

Accurate data on persons with disabilities is needed to make progress. Kenya made great strides in this regard during the 2019 census, which put the number of persons with disabilities aged five and above at 918,270 - two per cent of the population. This is a figure that has been strongly contested by people with disabilities.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics' 2022 Analytical Report on Disability for the 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census showed that the census excluded figures for children under the age of five. People with albinism were also counted separately, even though albinism is a disability.

 To address this data problem, the government, through the NCPWD, has introduced a new registration system that aims to register all persons with disabilities and capture their socio-economic data down to the ward level. This data will be useful in informing programmes and policies for persons with disabilities at both national and county levels of government.

In contrast to the past, the 2022 General Election also saw a significant improvement in the establishment of an inclusive electoral process for persons with disabilities. For the first time, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) established a Disability Inclusion Coordination Committee to coordinate the meaningful participation of persons with disabilities in the electoral process. 

However, the inclusion of persons with disabilities in county assemblies was no better, with 21 counties not having a single nominated county assembly member representing persons with disabilities, contrary to Article 177 (1) (c) of the Constitution.

Certainly, the journey of disability inclusion has been full of fits and starts - small steps. It is the responsibility of all citizens to continue to bend what Dr Martin Luther King Jr called the "arc of the moral universe" towards justice. 

A fully accessible society for people with disabilities is just around the corner, but only if we keep up the good work.

Mr Hassan is Chief Executive Officer, National Council for Persons with Disabilities.