• While participation is one of our national values, PwDs seldom take part in such forums due to factors such as inadequate access to information, accessibility of venues
• Where there has been observable PwD participation, the value is often low
The most recent debates on the Building Bridges Initiatives report has brought with it sharp divisions among persons with disabilities.
Soon after it was made public, two groups came up promoting different positions on the report. The contention is about the extent to which the report addresses the systemic exclusion of PwDs and whether society has done enough to include them in civic matters, decision-making and service delivery.
Disability inclusion is a social paradox that cannot be attributed to any singular action. Rather, it is both a process and an unending conversation about accommodating PwDs and breaking the invisible social barriers that produce marginalisation.
Scholars have argued that exclusion is often as a result of multiple dynamics, often acting in unison, resulting from the way society categorises and labels people. The overlap between such factors means exclusion cannot be addressed from a singular perspective.
The society’s inability to recognise this dilemma has resulted in the narrow characterisation of disability as a physical or psychosocial manifestation yet, it is a social construct.
Such focus on discernible characteristics of disability has largely contributed to disability mainstreaming measures that are either driven by elimination or mitigation through medical procedures and medication or help and charity. It has to be understood that disability starts from the point at which an individual is unable to access particular spaces, places and services. For instance, a person’s physical disability manifests at the point at which property owners fail to provide facilities such as ramps, rendering their buildings inaccessible.
The systemic nature of exclusion has entrenched itself so deep into the society’s moral fabric that PwDs continue to be disenfranchised from civic matters as well as decisions about society and themselves. When a person is absent, it is unlikely that they would be planned for.
A cursory glance at most county assemblies very easily demonstrates this misnomer. While Article 177 of the Constitution provides that they shall include at least four members with disabilities to represent PwDs, about 17 counties are yet to meet this threshold, with some having no PwD representatives.
In addition, the number of PwD representatives in these governance spaces was remarkably reduced from about 61 in 2013 to 42 in 2017. This is perhaps one of the reasons why most county budgets consistently provide for assistive devices such as wheelchairs, crutches, white canes.
At a lower level, it has been observed that service delivery, particularly for PWDs, is adversely affected by inadequate participation in governance.
While participation is one of our national values, PwDs seldom take part in public participation forums due to factors such as inadequate access to information, accessibility of meeting spaces or inadequate notice prior to such meetings.
For instances where there has been observable PwD participation, the value is often low and this can only mean that society is interested in checking boxes and filling in lists of participants rather than seeking meaningful views.
These are some of the issues that PwDs continue to agitate for. Disabusing this deeply entrenched characterisation of disability becomes the first step in embracing inclusion. Many had hoped that national discussions such as the BBI process would chart a deliberate path.
One concept that can be critical in ensuring disability inclusion while undoing systemic marginalisation is universal design. This concept compels society to consider and make provision for the most marginalised. Its application in the built environment, where buildings are expected to have ramps among other considerations is appreciated. But this can be extended to other realms.
For public participation, information can be made accessible in a variety of formats including Braille. It would also mean that organizers of public participation forums should first consider venues that are accessible, not only in terms of ramps, but also other considerations such as distance and terrain.
During the meetings, organisers must also consider availing sign language interpreters and other caregivers as appropriate.
But perhaps one of the most critical areas that could be considered is the manner in which information is relayed. The ability to participate is often limited by the availability. There must be deliberate attempts to leverage on technology to ensure that PwDs are reached wherever they are, and that they are able to participate through digital formats.
This glaring gap was most evident during the 2020-21 budget cycle discussion.
There are ongoing efforts by the Agency for Disability and Development to develop an online participation portal for PwDs, leveraging on web and SMS based communication channels.
The idea is to allow PwDs to access a wide range of information that would make it easier for individuals to make their voices heard. Such solutions among others could be the start of a journey towards democratising access to information and indeed fundamentally shifting the manner in which disability inclusion is implemented, to ensure greater civic competency and to allow society to fully embrace and appreciate the value that PwDs offer.
Thomas Ettyang is the public participation lead, Agency for Disability and Development in Africa