Political aspirants living with disabilities push for more representation

Gospel singer Reuben Kigame

Reuben Kigame, a veteran gospel singer turned politician.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

People with disabilities (PWD) have urged more of them to come out and vie in the upcoming General Election as they seek to meet the five percent quota in Article 54 of the Constitution

“I am standing as a protest against the notion that persons with disabilities cannot lead,” Reuben Kigame, a veteran gospel singer turned politician said.

Mr Kigame made headlines when he declared his presidential bid on Saba Saba Day in 2021.What was peculiar about the singer’s ambition was that a visually impaired man is seeking the highest public office in Kenya.

Article 54 of the Constitution requires that five per cent of elective and appointive positions be reserved for the disabled.

But there are only 12 legislators with disabilities in the current National Assembly and Senate.

The representation gap for the disabled is enormous and contenders in the August elections have cited numerous challenges in their attempt to bridge the deficit.

The “Huniachi” hit maker mentioned public stigma and cultural stereotypes as one of the major challenges he has faced.

“Lies are peddled from the public and other candidates aimed to portray me as incompetent and inexperienced based on my disability,” Mr Kigame said.

He said there is a negative public attitude towards disability. “It is assumed that persons with disabilities cannot make national leaders – especially not a President,” he said.

People like him, he said, “can effectively mainstream the needs of (the disabled) because they understand their needs and priorities better than able-bodied persons”.

“We are also able to champion inclusivity much better because we have been victims of exclusion.’’

Nominated MP David Ole Sankok, one of the lawmakers who represents the interests of the disabled in the National Assembly, echoed Mr Kigame’s sentiments.

Stigma, he said, exposes the physically challenged to physical violence and cyberbullying. “I have to start by fighting negative cultural stereotypes before wooing voters. That already places me at a disadvantage in comparison to my political counterparts,” he said.

These negative attitudes are in political parties too. Nominated MP Dennitah Ghati, who is vying for the woman representative seat in Migori County, said that some parties find it cumbersome to field candidates with disabilities.

“They prefer candidates with disabilities to wait for nominated seats even though there are only four designated slots for them in the National Assembly and Senate,” she said.

Because mobility and visibility are fundamental aspects of campaigning for public office, Ms Ghati said that she finds some campaign platforms such as podiums and stadiums inaccessible to people with disabilities.

Ms Ghati, who first ventured into politics as an able-bodied person, noted the stark difference in mobility while campaigning as a disabled person.

“Most of the platforms are built without considering persons with disabilities. There are often no ramps for wheelchairs. Your able-bodied opponents will get on podiums without any difficulty,” she added.

Wavinya Nzioka, who is running for the woman representative seat in Makueni County, also noted the mobility concerns. She has been mobilising young people to register as voters in her county and cited the physical pain she experiences in her lower limbs.

“I have to get someone to carry me to the top of the campaign truck for roadshows and stand for long hours. I have to sustain myself by taking painkillers,” she said

She has had to improvise a podium to address crowds because she cannot climb onto the top of cars.

“It is a major challenge because people in the crowd look anxious and think I might fall down while some cannot even see me. Your visibility in politics is very important – if you are not visible, then it damages your brand and chances of winning the seat,” she said.

While vying for a political seat is expensive in general, the entry cost for the disabled is much higher.

Franklin Omundi, an aspirant for the High-Rise ward representative, lamented the heavy financial burden of venturing into politics as a disabled person.

He has to hire three aides for mobility and security. He often suffers physical injuries during political rallies when his aides are not around.

“I have to pay people to move around with me in case the crowd gets rowdy and I have to flee the scene,” he told the Nation

Muthoni Kihara, a disability rights activist and politician, also echoed the security concerns.

“I need a heavy security budget to first run myself before running a campaign. I would need the help of an aide and a vehicle to be mobile because I cannot cover distances that an able-bodied person can manage comfortably,” she said.

It would be dangerous for her to campaign without security because if violence erupts, she cannot leave the scene on her own.

“A stampede at a political campaign can quickly turn into a fatal accident if I do not have security with me,” she added. “If I do not have security for the day, I cannot campaign.’’

She also complained about unfair nomination procedures used by political parties to fill seats for the disabled.

“You find able-bodied people representing persons with disabilities yet they do not understand and cannot effectively mainstream their needs,” she said.

Candidates with disabilities argue that support from their political parties would break most barriers to political representation.

“Political parties are strong tools through which persons with disabilities can get into leadership,” said Ms Ghati, who is also the president of the Commonwealth Parliamentarians with Disabilities Network.

Another proposal is to form disability leagues in political parties.

“Include persons with disabilities in the party governance structures such as national election councils. Political parties’ manifestos must reflect their agendas for persons with disabilities,” she said.

That view is supported by Ms Kihara: “Disability is a diverse problem because there are various forms of disabilities. It is important to accommodate diverse opinions.”

She also advocates legal reforms to enhance the political participation of the disabled. She is particularly concerned about the lumping of disabled people with “special interest groups”.

“The language of laws and policies should be specific. Instead of allocating a percentage to all special interest groups, a definitive number should be allocated for each of the special interest groups,” she said.

Mr Kigame, the presidential aspirant, said that the progressive implementation of the five per cent quota should be replaced with a minimum number.

Mr Sankok argued that all political parties should waive nomination fees for disabled aspirants.

“Persons with disabilities already face financial constraints that make it difficult for them to run for office. Political parties should also set up a fund to (help them) campaign effectively,” he said.

He also called for the mainstreaming of the rights of the disabled in the police service, saying this would curb physical and verbal attacks on them.

Kenya has made progress in including the disabled in public and political spaces, said Faith Odidi, program coordinator at the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

“Political parties can shift the narrative of PWDs from people who need help but persons who can take part in the governance of the country,” she said.

She urged political parties to make their environment politically friendly by ensuring their rallies are peaceful, removing mobility barriers and conducting targeted civic education to enhance political participation for PWDs.