The humanity of a society is measured by the way it treats the less able, and there is a worrying trend in the way Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) officials are dealing with peoples with disabilities (PWDs).
This week’s tax pandemonium has almost exclusively focused on the fuel levy and the subsequent increase in petrol prices, but there is a lot more going on…a worrying trend that demeans not only our economy, but our humanity.
The 2015 digitisation of KRA was long overdue, and it streamlined a messy process. But its pitfalls also opened a Pandora’s box that hit PWDs badly, many of whom are government employees.
After iTax was introduced, deductions for PWDs started and their tax waivers were revoked. It has been three years now, and nothing has been done, and somehow the figures keep changing and increasing.
REVOKED TAX WAIVERS
Muthoni explained to me that the situation seems most inhumane in Nyeri County, where the privilege PWDs enjoyed yesterday has become today’s unbearable burden and tomorrow’s nightmare. The county government is demanding from the disabled the payment of millions of shillings on supposed tax arrears and penalties.
One such victim, whose disability is permanent after contracting polio as a child, is close to 60 years old. She is being asked to pay almost Sh5 million, of which 1.7 million comes from tax interests and penalties calculated during the period for which she was exempt. KRA officials claim that tax waivers have been revoked till they finish paying the penalties and arrears, which will probably never happen.
As Muthoni narrated this drama to me, I knew no concrete solution could come out of this story if I did not put flesh and blood to it. Stories become real and credible when we can touch them, feel them…when they are made of flesh and blood.
WILSON MACHARIA'S STORY
Wilson Macharia’s story is real, inspiring and touching. Wilson was born blind. Today, he is a lawyer; a student at the Kenya School of Law and a brilliant graduate assistant at Strathmore Law School.
Wilson has never seen colours and shapes. All he knows, he has learnt through hearing, touching and smelling.
Sometimes I tell him that he perceives beauty better than I do. We get distracted and deceived by looks, but he senses inner and deeper beauty through some sort of chemistry that includes voice intonation, manners and reactions that usually escape the visual person.
Wilson’s other senses are always on alert and he can perceive a lot about the people that I interact with. For him, beauty is associated with the heart, what he hears in your tone. Wilson can “see it in the dark” and he says that he is fortunate to be surrounded by beautiful people.
His dream since childhood was to be a lawyer, and today he is one. He comes from a very humble background, but he had what every child has a right to have, supporting and caring parents.
Wilson’s childhood journey was one full of setbacks, most of which were caused by negative perceptions about being blind, and his own fear of the unknown. But the biggest challenge came from school heads. I asked Wilson to narrate his own story:
Very few school heads were willing to admit a pupil who was visually impaired. My parents, on the other hand, went out of their way to ensure that I, just like my other siblings, would have an opportunity to be educated.
They pleaded with school heads to at least allow me to stay in class and listen, as well as interact with other kids. They were not aware of any special schools for the blind at the time and of course very few teachers would warm up to the idea.
One day, I gained admission to Little Friends Academy in Naivasha. This was an opportunity that I shall live to remember. It gave me a foundation that I could stand on and stand strong. My interaction with my classmates was fulfilling and I fitted in and participated fully in all the school activities.
The main challenge was how to access learning materials. They were in print format, but I still loved the school and kept pushing with the encouragement of my parents and teachers.
In 2008, I was admission number (001) in St Lucy’s High School for the blind, where I learnt Braille. This was a pioneer experiment which helped me realise my dream. I sat KCSE in 2011 and managed to achieve good grades and got admitted to the law programme at the University of Nairobi.
It is difficult for me to forget that some friends opted to resit for a national examination because, according to them, it was not acceptable for a blind person to perform better than they did.
At the beginning of university, I felt lonely and surrounded by people who were not conscious of my disability. It was both exhilarating and terrifying; I had finally got “my” independence and felt pressure to prove to everyone and myself that I could handle it, even though I didn’t know how.
I was alone, naïve and I had never had any exposure to the city. The pace was faster, and the expectations were greater. I was supposed to be in control of my own destiny. I began to appreciate everything my parents and support systems had done for me in the past.
A typical college student is expected to attend class, take notes, read the course material, conduct research, write papers, complete assignments, and sit for exams.
In college, they expect you to manage the effects of your disability on your own and find your way around lectures, course material and readings as well as discovering ways to compensate for any absent teacher. This is quite challenging for a student with disabilities, especially when the institution is not sensitive or designed to meet these needs.
I had to switch from Braille to more sophisticated computer software. I started learning a speech program called Jaws. This made communication easier and I did not need a third-party intervention to transcribe my work to a format that was legible to the rest.
For the average person, technology makes things easier, but for persons with disabilities, technology makes things possible. Technology has transformed my life. However, no matter how much technology may help, it can never replace human assistance, those friends around me…I call them angels. “God bless them” for I often lack words to show how grateful I am.
At some point, I realised that acceptance would mark the beginning of my growth. Acceptance is a shield that blocks you from injury, and a sword that defends you from frustration. It rewrites the story. It helped me identify mechanisms to cope with my daily challenges and fears. It shifted my focus to the positive and the possible.
My amazing friends helped me grow in confidence. As time went on, I was also elected to serve in the secretariat in the university’s student organisation for two terms.
It is exhausting to be in a situation where you are always expected to prove yourself to the world, but with time and God’s favour, I have come to appreciate the impact of meeting people who believe in my abilities. I am the person I am today because someone yesterday gave me a chance to show my worth.
Every day, when I leave home to catch a matatu to work, I walk by faith, not by sight. I also walk “with” Faith, my smart white cane. I know, right? People name their pets and cars all the time. I figured, I should also name my personal assistant, the walking stick that guides me.
Why Faith? Why a girl’s name? Well, I hear that ladies ‘stop traffic’, just like Faith when I am doing that which most blind persons do in town…trying to cross a road, dodging motorbikes and matatus.
Certainly, my visual impairment hinders my full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. PWDs face daily barriers, which include physical, institutional, communicational as well as attitudinal barriers.
Eliminating such barriers to promote inclusion is a difficult and expensive affair, especially when it entails acquiring assistive devices or adaptive technology. However, the impact you make on the beneficiary is priceless. A change of attitude towards PWDs does not cost anything. A bad attitude is said to be a disability too.
I want to end this personal account by opening my soul, and let you feel some highlights of my life. My lowest moment so far happened in September 2017, when I was denied an opportunity to work with a certain company because of my condition.
I had met all the requirements and had successfully completed all the recruitment stages. I was a signature away from getting that job. I had already fostered new friendships with other recruits on the open day when I was informed by the HR department that there must have been an oversight on their end.
It was demoralising to watch others celebrate a new job knowing that you were denied because of your condition. It is hard to fit in a society which focuses mainly on that which you are not able to do. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it the “danger of the single story”.
This crushed me; I was torn apart and my dignity was stripped off. But as an advocate for inclusion, I realise now that this experience was not completely useless to me and I could use it as a bad example!
I also have a fantastic example of a good institution, my current employer, Strathmore University. I lack words to describe how great an experience it has been for me to be here at the Law School. Before I started working here, I used those to illustrate how accessibility can be realised. Now I have a perfect model to use as a reference point.
I have helped editing books, giving tutorials, doing research… I even conducted a short training on disability for my colleagues, with do’s and don’ts. It included a short blindfold exercise for them to get a glimpse of how my world feels like. You should watch out for the amusing video once it is out.
I joined SLS in June, together with James and Jade, as a graduate assistant. James Mabuti finished law at Moi University, and Jade Makory here at Strathmore. I am also expecting Angela and Purity, who will soon join us from Nairobi University. We are all young law graduates on our way to becoming advocates.
James and Jade have been lucky to represent Kenya abroad in international competitions. I have never been abroad, in countries where accessibility [to buildings] is observed during design. I have only taken mental tours with the help of my friends.
My world has been gratifying and frustrating, fearful and exciting, challenging and at times easy to master. It was not easy for me to accept my disability, knowing all the challenges that come with the package, but I thank God for who I am and the family and friends he has put in my path.
Since Wilson came to work with us, and also with the encouragement of our friends of the Orione Community Centre for children with mental disabilities, we are all becoming advocates for people with disabilities, in a natural way.
KRA and its county agents must understand that tax exemptions for PWDs do not always translate to extra benefits. They help them cover the extra costs our society and systems ignore. Our inhumane and herd-like transport system obliges them to use boda bodas and taxis to navigate through the city’s inaccessible and unfriendly streets. Even if they can afford a car, they would still need to engage a driver.
For Wilson to use a personal laptop, he must first purchase a third-party screen reader software for Sh100,000; and a standard Brailler, which is equivalent to a pen worth Sh10 costing him Sh90,000.
INCOME TAX EXEMPTION
On iTax issues, Wilson argues that the KRA Online Tax Portal is inaccessible for visually impaired people. He always needs assistance from friends to fill tax returns.
The law exempts PWDs from paying income taxes as well as motor-vehicle import duty, but they are not exempted from VAT. The fact that this is not known to many PWDs and government officials has created a lot of confusion, especially with the recent forceful filing by KRA.
He has communicated this to KRA officials but nothing has been done to date, yet he was served in 2016 with a KRA demand notice with accrued penalties due to non-filing returns. Ironically, the filing system that is inaccessible for the visually impaired is able to calculate the penalties.
The time has come for the Kenya Revenue Authority to become a champion for the disabled. It should not be terribly difficult to streamline a messy process that is eating out humanity from within. Let us not add more petrol to the tax fire we set ablaze this past week.
Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi