In Uganda, disability is less of a burden

Rights campaigners point to sign language on TV news, a union, education incentives, and a minister for the disabled.

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In Uganda's recent national election, the polling instructions offered a portrait of a nation.

After casting their ballots, citizens' thumbs were dipped in ink to show that they had voted.

"If you do not have a thumb, you can have another finger dipped," says the voter's guide. "If you do not have any hands," it continues, "the process shall be applied to any other body part as a polling assistant may determine."

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The detailed directions underscore both problems and progress here. Disease, war, poverty, and frequent traffic accidents have left some 15 percent of the population disabled - a hardship mirrored in several parts of Africa. But in Uganda, efforts are being made to help those with disabilities out of the shadows and into the mainstream.

During the past 15 years under the leadership of Yoweri Museveni - who was reelected to a fourth term March 12 - Uganda has instituted some of the most advanced disability laws in Africa.

The country's affirmative-action policy states that at least two disabled people - a man and a woman - must sit on every decisionmaking body (which typically has nine members) from the village to the district level.

In total, there are 27,000 disabled leaders, including five members of Parliament and a minister for the disabled - Florence Naiga Sekabira. Ms. Sekabira walks with a crutch because of a bout with polio, which is still common in Uganda and the leading cause of disability here.

New buildings must accommodate those with handicaps; libraries have Braille sections; the nightly news is signed for the deaf. Parents, who traditionally kept disabled children hidden at home, get incentives to send them to school.

Richard Engorok Obin, the assistant program manager of Action on Disability and Development in Uganda, a British-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that has been advocating for the rights of the disabled in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa, credits presidential policy with the changed approach to disability. "Museveni created a conducive environment for free association and free organization. And we saw a way to begin creating a group to articulate our needs," he says.

While public attitudes are still catching up to the country's progressive policies, they are nonetheless shifting.

Betty Kinene, for one, says she can see a difference. "When I got polio at age 3, my father thought it was because my mother had done something wrong," says Ms. Kinene, a mother of eight and a councilwoman from the district of Mpigi. "It brought about the separation of my parents."

Thrown out by her father, Kinene grew up in her grandparents' village, dragging herself around with the help of a broomstick. Her life improved when she was able to persuade an uncle to pay for her to attend vocational school.

After graduation, she began working as a buyer for Uganda Crafts, a popular Kampala tourist store that sells traditional arts and crafts. Many of them are made by disabled artisans. "Of course, I am interested in encouraging the disabled," she says. "But I take from other artisans as well. I choose for quality - not for pity."

A few kilometers away from Kinene's store, another woman who had polio, Sharifa Mirembe, manages a small workshop that makes folding wheelchairs

She echoes Kinene's sentiment, insisting that pity is not a word with which she wants to be associated.

Together with her seven-member team, Ms. Mirembe makes seven chairs a month and sells them for $150 to $250. Subsidized by a California-based NGO, Whirlwind International, the team is not yet turning much of a profit. But they are proud of their work and hope the business will expand.

"Most of us were marginalized as children. Only now are we realizing we are of some use," says Mirembe. "At first, I was afraid to work with heavy materials. But I got used to it, and it has given me strength. I have made myself what I am," she says.

"We are not asking for any handouts or to be treated as appendages of existing structures. Rather, we want to change society completely so that we are equals within the system," says advocate Mr. Obin.

It was his group that pushed for the formation of the National Union of Disabled people (NUDP) of Uganda, which in turn did much of the lobbying that resulted in the new legislation.

NUDP is using as a model the Ugandan women's movement, which counts among its successes four female government ministers, 40 members of Parliament, various affirmative-action programs to integrate women into the workforce, and incentive programs urging families to send daughters to school.

NUDP has since gone about creating chapters at various levels and campaigning for more sensitivity to the needs of the disabled, as well as better laws to protect them. Says Obin: "Every program now in Uganda is gender-sensitive, and we hope to create a similar revolution."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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