• Lack of skills and work discrimination are hindering the hiring of impaired persons
• Most of the 900,000 PWDs miss out on jobs or are the first to be cut in tough times
For many Kenyans, the search for employment can stretch on for years, with impressive academic qualifications failing to arouse interest from recruiting companies.
But the reality for persons with disabilities is even more hopeless. They have to contend with unabated stigma arising from their condition and low education levels.
“I remember being called for an interview at the Government Secretarial College through a newspaper,” said Jane Miano, a retiree and person living with a disability.
“As fate would have it, I lost my balance due to the slippery floors and landed on the ground. The incident fazed the recruiting panel. I did not get the job.”
Disabled persons face many difficulties, above all lack of a source of income. Limitation in securing formal and informal employment condemns them and their families to greater suffering than non-disabled persons.
“My journey of seeking employment is one marred with disappointments and frustrations,” Miano said.
“Sometimes I would walk into an organisation that had called me for an interview and they would not even afford me an interview. I would get dismissed at first glance.”
Miano is a bubbly woman, descending into her 70s with a cheerful spirit and a high affinity for assisting persons with a disability like herself wade through a society that continues to alienate them.
She suffered poliovirus at the tender age of eight months, which made her drag her knees on the floor for the better part of her early childhood.
Around eight years of age, she was rehabilitated by her mother and sister to depart from her manner of mobility and start using crutches.
Resolute to have her educated, her mother would hoist Miano on her back and transport her to school and back. Eventually, she completed school and started scouring for a job in Nairobi with her secretarial qualifications.
“The frustrations of securing work led me to the office of the Labour principal secretary, where I laid my despondency bare. He wondered why I hadn’t been hired yet I had impressive qualifications,” Miano said.
“The number of persons with disability (PWDs) who had formal education at my time was modest. So my qualifications impressed him.”
The ripple effect of the intervention by the PS landed her a job at the Post office, where she rose through the ranks to be a telegraph superintendent.
Soon, the tide turned against Miano and she left the company, which had communicated the intent of restructuring.
“After leaving employment, I began peddling milk and doing beadwork to make some coins. But the thing with polio is that as you age, your muscles grow weaker. The implication is a person loses their independence, requiring more support,” Miano told the Star.
Losing her job put Miano in the way of tribulations, incurring huge costs of medication and treatment. With social protection programmes barely meeting her needs and a pension remission all too little, Miano’s hope became hinged on her small business and her relatives for survival.
“Right now things are not easy. Medication and hospital visits take the lion’s share of my proceeds. Let me put it this way: Were it not for my sisters and nieces, I do not know what would become of me,” Miano said.
Although Miano was allowed to display her professional skills, existing hurdles notwithstanding, the same cannot be said for the more than 900,000 Kenyans living with disabilities.
Anjeline Okola, programme coordinator of the Ecumenical Disability Advocate Network (Edan), says lack of skills and work discrimination are hindering the hiring of persons with impairments.
“Some individuals with disability lack proficient skills to compete for opportunities in the job market as they have not had formal employment,” Okola said.
“While some employers think they will incur more cost restructuring the working environment to make it friendly.”
But she says this should not be the case as technology has unveiled useful mechanisms for persons with disability to utilise.
Further, she is urging the government to mount a survey to establish the rate of retention of disabled workers and their employability prospects.
“We are asking the government to map out the number of disabled persons in employment because we have noted with concern that PWDs can spend years in the same position being denied upward progression in their careers,” Okola said.
“The survey will help us come up with better policies to remove barriers hindering access to work and employment for disabled persons.”
Kenya has existing measures to enhance the participation of persons with disabilities in formal employment. Among them is allowing persons with disability to retire at 65 from the traditional limit of 60 years for non-disabled persons.
Also, companies that employ PWDs are allowed tax discounts on their profits. Further, the constitution of Kenya requires companies to reserve 5 per cent occupancy for disabled persons in their organisations or companies.
Still, unemployment remains prevalent among PWDs, a situation that inevitably robs them of their dignity and diminishes their roles in the community.
Physical disability, identified as the dominant form of disability in the 2019 census, is easily recognisable to an employer.
However, there exists a silent disability, one which affects the quality of a person’s thoughts, behaviour and feelings, consequentially having a bearing on an individual’s performance in the job market: psychosocial disability.
Individuals facing this form of disability have found themselves in a conundrum: grappling with unsuitable working environments and an inability to voice their conditions to their employers.
“This one time I was out for a press conference and I wanted to ask a question,” said Elizabeth Ombati, a trained journalist.
“My heart paced rapidly and I was overwhelmed with dizziness. I knew it would be impossible to raise my hand, let alone to speak up. I submitted my resignation letter the very same day.”
Kenya’s Employment Act 2007 defines disability as physical, sensory, mental or other impairment including any visual, hearing, learning or physical incapability, which impacts adversely on a person’s social and economic participation.
Ombati is a disability advocate keen on advancing the needs of PWDs. She was diagnosed with social anxiety, a form of psychosocial disability, some 12 years ago, finally giving her mental anguish a clinical name.
“For someone who experiences intense anxiety as I used to get, disclosing this to an employer is crucial,” Ombati said.
“But if you tell a potential employer that you experience panic attacks (I did that once), the first question they ask you is, ‘Will the panic attacks not affect your work?’”
In place of that question, Ombati says, employers should seek to know what form of reasonable accommodation they can afford their employees to thrive.
Ombati recounts incidents where people have expressed fear of notifying their employers as the action opens them up to suspicion and scrutiny or even worse, job loss.
“Both private and public sector must be cognisant of the environment that persons with a disability find themselves in. Physical, attitudinal and communication barriers that keep disabled persons out of employment must be addressed,” Ombati said.
Some reasonable adjustments being championed by psychosocially disabled persons include flexible working hours, creation of awareness and a departure from rigid working formulas.
As every condition varies from the other, different individuals might require varying accommodations.
Last year, the coronavirus penetrated our borders, spinning the rhythm of life out of control. Persons with disabilities bore the brunt more, and they continue feeling the pain, with inadequate social protection systems in place.
“We failed to see the government step in to cushion the disabled persons in informal employment,” said Jackson Agufana, CEO, Kenya Union of the Blind (KUB).
“SMEs and other industry drivers were offered soft loans and some form of support, but these vulnerable groups did not see their business cushioned.”
Now various organisations are urging the government to include disabled persons in social protection measures due to their high-risk levels in the wake of tragedies such as the pandemic.
The organisations include KUB, United Disabled Persons of Kenya (UDPK), Association of the Physically Disabled of Kenya (APDK) and Edan.
They also want the government to prioritise giving Covid-19 jabs to PWDs.
Agufana has faulted the National Council of Persons with Disability (NCPD) for their lacklustre approach in assisting persons with disabilities during the pandemic.
“The National Development Fund for Persons with Disability, which is under NCPD, should design a contingency fund,” Agufana told the Star during a recent interview.
“This fund would respond to situations of emergency for persons with disability in terms of disaster or pandemics such as Covid-19.”
At the same time, recently unveiled national budget allocated Sh37.8 billion to social protection and affirmative action. Out of this amount, Sh1.2 billion would go to persons living with severe disabilities.
Edited by T Jalio