The world grieves the demise of Stephen Hawking, who lived with a motor neuron disease for practically all his adult life.
Prof Hawking had a prominent career in astrophysics. He defeated not only conventional knowledge but also disability. In the foreword to the World Report on Disability by Unicef, he attributed this to his access to medical care and the fact that his house and workplace had been made accessible to him.
Computer experts supported him with a communication system and a speech synthesiser that allowed him to compose lectures and papers and to communicate with relative ease.
The International Paralympics Committee (IPC) paid tribute to Prof Hawking during the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Paralympics last month. The IPC president lauded him as an “extraordinary man and a pioneer for all people with an impairment around the world. He embodied the word ability more than anyone.”
Prof Hawking was a living testimony of the heights that a person with disability can rise to if given the opportunity to do so. Have we given Kenyans with disabilities this opportunity? What is the situation in Kenya?
INCONSISTENT LAWS AND POLICIES
A few years ago, I encountered an amazing centre for children with disabilities in Ongata Rongai. The Orione Centre houses close to 100 mentally disabled children. It is beautifully constructed and maintained. One sees a lot of love and sacrifice behind each wall.
At this facility, these children, who had been rejected by their families and society, found a purpose in life. They learn to cultivate a shamba, to sign, to laugh and to love.
But Orione also faced a dramatic reality. Laws and policies are largely inconsistent and not executed. Our care of people with disabilities has so far been a mere wish, an unfulfilled desire.
In Kenya, the rights of the disabled are enshrined in three main laws. First, the 2010 Constitution. Second, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted by the United Nations in 2006 and ratified by Kenya in 2008. Third, the Persons with Disabilities Act of 2003, which is a legal framework for access to services and inclusion.
Additionally, the disabled are mentioned in at least 65 other Acts of Parliament, dealing with basic rights, education, equality of opportunity, sexual offenses, the right to vote, etc.
SIGN LANGUAGE CO-ANCHOR
The Constitution mentions the term “disability/disabilities” at least 15 times. It is defined to include “any physical, sensory, mental, psychological or other impairment, condition or illness that has, or is perceived by significant sectors of the community to have, a substantial or long-term effect on an individual’s ability to carry out ordinary day-to-day activities.”
The Constitution requires the state to promote the development and use of sign language, Braille and other communication formats and technologies accessible to people with disabilities. It has become quite common for the main television networks to have a sign language co-anchor during news broadcasts.
While this is an important step in the right direction, I wonder whether the tiny window that usually appears at the bottom right corner is adequate for the targeted audience.
Maybe this solution was appropriate for the long-gone analogue times. I sometimes wonder if this approach may be turning the deaf people blind from squinting at their TV screens during the entire news broadcast. Some innovation is definitely necessary to ensure that at least the popular TV shows are accessible to the deaf.
The Constitution imposes a duty on all State organs and public officers to address the needs of vulnerable groups within society, including the disabled. While the needs of the disabled are varied and on a wide spectrum, there is no excuse for the absence of a legislative and policy framework on this aspect of our society.
How many public buildings and offices, even within the city of Nairobi, are easily accessible to the disabled? And by easy accessibility, one would think of appropriate ramps, “functional” elevators, sufficient reserved parking slots, dedicated service stations/counters, reserved washrooms, etc.
If the traffic light system were allowed to work in the streets, there would be a need for sound devices to assist the blind in crossing roads. As things stand now, a blind man in Nairobi is a dead man walking.
The state should not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground, including disability. A person with disability is entitled under the Constitution to be treated with dignity and respect and to be addressed and referred to in a manner that is not demeaning.
MATERIALS AND DEVICES
People with disabilities are entitled to access educational institutions and facilities for the disabled that are integrated into society to the extent compatible with the interests of the person. They are also entitled to reasonable access to all places, public transport and information and appropriate means of communication.
Further, they are entitled to access materials and devices to overcome constraints arising from their disability. The Constitution also requires the State to ensure the progressive implementation of the principle that at least five per cent of members of the public in elective and appointive bodies are people with disabilities.
According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Ministry of Education in collaboration with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) Jitolee, one in every 10 Kenyans below the age of 21 is disabled.
The survey also indicated that more than 16 per cent of children with disabilities were out of school while 18.4 per cent of children and youth with disabilities were either total or partial orphans.
The most prevalent condition was multiple disabilities at 31 per cent, visual impairment at 20 per cent, hearing impairment at 10 per cent and physical impairment at nine per cent. In another national survey for people with disabilities conducted in 2015, more than three million people in Kenya were living with disabilities.
The Constitution contains a great promise for the disabled but sadly the plight of such people continues to be left unaddressed. There is a lot that our society needs to work on, including implementation of legal and policy frameworks to facilitate access to health, education and services for them.
There are some pretty innovative solutions that have been implemented in some cities across the world that could work in Kenya. For instance, Seattle has a sidewalk mapping app that has details on ramps and dropped kerbs, making it easier for people with disabilities to navigate easily.
Singapore launched its universal design principles drawn by its Building Construction Authority in 2007. The principles have encouraged accessibility.
In Sonoma County, California, a housing project was specifically designed to address the special needs of people living with autism who are hypersensitive to sound, light and movement. The fittings and décor in the homes reduce sensory stimulation and clutter while noise is kept to the minimum, courtesy of thoughtful design.
We may have many Hawkings in Kenya and in East Africa. We will never know, unless we give them a chance.
The time has come to harmonise disability laws, policy and reality…to walk the talk and put hand to broom, sweeping away any inconsistencies in our laws and our practices.
Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi