EAC Shines Spotlight on People with Disability

Published on 22nd February 2010

Paralympics games in Beijing      Photo courtesy
All our constitutions in the EAC countries encapsulate provisions on the promotion of equal opportunities and social justice. Indeed, the vision of our governments is to promote modern, peaceful and prosperous nations that are inclusive of all citizens.  However, our challenge has continued to centre on how best to construct such societies.


Since the mid 1980s as our countries became surrogates to the Washington Consensus with its neo-liberal policies of structural adjustments, the challenge took a stark and complex dimension on how to strike a balance, a delicate one, between pursuing market driven economic policies and assuring the broad masses of basic but fundamental social, economic and cultural rights.  People with disabilities, more than the rest in our societies, became more vulnerable to that economic environment.


A human rights issue


The idea of human and social rights for people with disability has evolved over the past five decades.  However, since the 1980s, the idea has translated itself into a global movement fired by the spirit of countering deep seated prejudices and cultural influences which legitimised the marginalisation, segregation and isolation of people with disabilities.  It is this momentum that gave birth to the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons in 2007.


That Convention which has been ratified by one fourth of UN Member States and by all the EAC Partner States except Burundi, confirmed that disability is a broad human rights issue as well as a legal issue.  In particular, the Convention recognised that people with disability have same right to enjoy equal access to goods and services and to contribute to society and the economy as anybody else.


In 1992, the United Nations set 3 December of each year as the international Day of Disabled People. On 3 December 1999, the African Union declared the African Decade of Persons with Disabilities and adopted an Action Plan in 2002. The AU has extended the Decade of Persons with Disabilities to 2019.


One in ten people, i.e. 650 million persons worldwide have a disability that affects their daily life.  Of these, four-fifths live in developing countries and mostly in rural areas. In the EAC region, there are estimated to be 12 million people with disabilities and they are the most stigmatised, poorest and least educated of our citizens.  They are also vulnerable to gross inhuman acts as in the case senseless killings of albinos in Tanzania during 2008 and 2009 driven by beliefs in witchcraft.  At the same time, women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to gender violence.


Worse, anecdotal evidence suggests that the risk of HIV infection for people with disabilities is twice as high as that faced by the non-disabled population.  During the 17th International Aids Conference held in Mexico City in August 2008, it was observed that people with disabilities are left out of AIDS research, policies and programmes which is tantamount to relegation of 10% of the world population to the far margins of the AIDS response.  Clearly, the challenge for all of us and especially governments is to ensure that people with disabilities are included in our national AIDS surveys, research and programming for prevention, treatment and care.


Empowerment and involvement


More importantly, people with disabilities should be closely involved in all our development initiatives as we strive for the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals.  Last December, during the occasion of designation of the American artiste Stevie Wonder as UN Messenger of Peace, the UN Secretary General Bank Ki-moon observed that “without the broader participation of peoples with disability in development initiatives, prospects are dim for reaching the MDGs. If they can overcome the challenges that keep disproportionate numbers of people with disabilities and their families in poverty, the odds improve significantly.” Secretary General Ban Ki-moon went on to say “experience shows that when persons with disability are empowered to participate and lead the process of development, the entire community opens up; their involvement creates opportunities for everyone with or without a disability”.


If we are to walk the talk, walk what our constitution and laws that guarantee equal rights and opportunities to people with disabilities, then it is imperative to mainstream disability issues in our development priorities.  We cannot adequately address disability issues if they are not aligned and made complementary to national priorities and programmes. In this important exercise, the private sector also has a role to play. Our Media too, is a powerful vehicle for debunking prejudices and stereotypes about disabilities and for attacking the attitudinal barriers that lie at the heart of limiting the life chances of people with disabilities.The accessibility of people with disabilities to Media and the ability to use new technologies of communication constitute important factors for reducing the obstacles to information. 


Reviewing contemporary models


Disability to a large measure, is still viewed in our society as a medical condition.  This medical model defines people with disabilities in terms of their physical deficiencies against a benchmark of what is perceived as the normal able-bodied human being. In consequence, governments establish services to provide care to people with disabilities.  Thus we have the title of Government Ministries as Social Welfare. Faith-based organisations, on the other hand, have equally followed the same medical model by providing services to “the mentally handicapped,” “the deaf” and “the blind.” 


We must disentangle ourselves, as governments, as faith organisations and as private or business firms from this medical model that fails to liberate people with disabilities from a social welfare support framework. We must create the conditions that enable the people with disabilities to live and work in dignity as other human beings.  In the EU, a number of measures have been taken to integrate people with disabilities in its various programmes.  These include:


1. Examining to which extent discrimination on grounds of disability, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief exist in education, social protection and access to goods and services;

2. Institutions of the EU shall take into account the needs of persons with disabilities in drawing up measures under Article 95 of the Treaty of Rome;

3. Development of design standards that improve accessibility for disabled people;

4. Exploit the potential of many people excluded from the labour market;

5. Identifying disabled peoples as one of the key priority groups;

6. Ensure that people with disabilities are able to enjoy all the four freedoms under the EU Single Market;


The EAC Secretariat with other EAC Organs, Institutions and numerous stakeholders in our region will work on this issue of harmonisation of standards that cut across a wide spectrum of activities and facilities. These include access to buildings and elevators, infrastructure, education, health, sports stadiums, movie and other theatres.We must open up the world of sport and culture to people with disabilities.


Access to people with disabilities is central to unleashing their potential, for easing their movement, for their work and leisure. It is such access that would leverage the opportunities for people with disabilities and those without to interact, socialise and develop greater understanding.


What the EAC needs to do


First, it is important that the EAC reviews the structure and composition of its Sectoral Council dealing with Social Affairs.  In my view, going by the challenges our region faces, we need a Sectoral Council that deals squarely with issues of employment, equal opportunities, social and cultural affairs. This Sectoral Council should be mandated to deal with disability issues and an office on people with disabilities should quickly be established in the EAC Secretariat.  This Sectoral Council should be responsible for: Creating more and better jobs; Promoting free movement of labour and coordinate social security programmes; Promoting better working conditions; Promoting social inclusion and non discrimination, the integration of disabled people being an important responsibility; and Promoting gender equality in all fields of EAC’s programmes.


Second, the EAC should take responsibility in the organisation and establishment of an East African Association of Persons with Disability.  This association should as quickly as possible be given observer status in the EAC.  Moreover, the EAC Secretariat together with this association shall endeavour to organise an annual Conference on Peoples with Disability to address the challenges facing integration of people with disability in our societies, share best practices on how to empower them and proposing new measures that need to be taken to support people with disability to achieve quality lives.


We can, as EAC Partner States, and as a region, make the difference for peoples with disability.


By Amb. Juma V. Mwapachu,

Secretary General

East African Community.

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