Disability Awareness
Challenges and Struggles Faced by Persons with Disabilities Across Africa

Examining the Plight of Africa's Disabled Community: Policies, Adversities, and Paths Towards Empowerment and Inclusion

Paraplegic games, African Paralympics, basketball players chasing the ball in wheelchairs.

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From Cape to Cairo, many are the tears of the African people living with disabilities, pummelled by poverty from all directions, yet with governments brandishing sound national disability policy documents.

Now, even as the world commemorates the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, for most Africans such as Agness Mandimba, a disability activist in Zimbabwe, there is just nothing to celebrate as disabled persons’ conditions have worsened over the years.

Mandimba is a co-founder and Executive Director of Deaf Women Included, a non-governmental organisation advocating for women with hearing impairments in Zimbabwe.

Celebrated every third of December, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities is an international observance endorsed by the United Nations since 1992. However, three decades later, Africa’s disability activists like Mandimba see nothing positive about the observance of the day.

“To me, it is just like any other day. Doing a one-day celebration without empowering persons with disabilities changes nothing in our lives. I think it does not bring any meaningful thing. At the end of the day, you go home and continue to be hungry. So, do we really have anything to celebrate in this poverty?” Mandimba said.

According to UNESCO, about 1.4 million people have some form of disability in Zimbabwe. The National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped (NASCOH) has been on record saying only two percent of people with disabilities in Zimbabwe are employed in the public sector. Overall, said NASCOH, less than seven percent of people with disabilities in Zimbabwe are in employment. For such individuals, even as the world commemorates the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, there is nothing bringing smiles to their faces.

Yet in 2021, with the support of the United Nations and other stakeholders, Zimbabwe launched the National Disability Policy meant to address the marginalisation and discrimination of Persons with Disabilities. But according to Barbara Nyangairi, who is the director at Deaf Zimbabwe Trust, a voluntary organisation promoting the rights and interests of the deaf and hard of hearing people in Zimbabwe, entirely across Africa, people with disabilities have tasted rather less bliss.

“As a continent, we have uneven development as far as disability inclusion is concerned, but generally, persons with disabilities face many barriers and limitations in Africa. People with disabilities are overrepresented amongst the poor, are more likely to be uneducated, which makes prospects for sustainable employment a dream. Discrimination and stigma are rife in society, making them less likely to be employed,” said Nyangairi.

In Malawi, just as in other African countries, people with disabilities have remained at the periphery, according to disability activists in the poor African country.

“The human rights situation of persons with disabilities in Malawi is still dire and quite undesirable. Persons with disabilities continue to be on the margins of mainstream development activities as they still face insurmountable challenges to access basic services and enjoy their fundamental rights despite the normative and progressive disability-related legal and policy framework,” said Harriet Kachimanga, Public Relations Officer of the Malawi Council for the Handicapped.

In 2021, Malawi enacted the Disability Act to make provision for the equalisation of opportunities for persons with disabilities through the promotion of their rights. But many Malawians like Kachimanga have said this has no ultimate remedy to the crisis faced by citizens living with disabilities.

“The problem might not necessarily be the absence of legal and policy safeguards or guarantees. The chief challenge is actualising the spirit of the constitution of Malawi on a non-discrimination and equality basis,” said Kachimanga.

Based on the 2018 Population and Housing Census, there are 1,734,250 persons with disabilities in Malawi, representing about 11.6 percent of the total population aged above five years.

In Kenya, approximately three million people are living with disabilities, according to the International Labor Organization, with many of these facing barriers to independent living, a high illiteracy rate, unemployment, and poverty.

Kenya, however, has a policy on employing the disabled, but Kenyan employers have often disregarded the policy, further fuelling the plight of the country’s handicapped population.

But David Ole Sankok, former chairman for the Kenya National Council for Persons with Disabilities, said, “People living with disabilities need opportunities, not sympathy.”

Africa’s human rights defenders have said it makes more economic sense employing disabled persons owing to their history of loyalty.

“Employing disabled individuals keeps talent in the workplace. Many people with disabilities find deep satisfaction in their work, leading to high levels of dedication and loyalty,” said Elvis Mugari, a human rights activist in Zimbabwe.

However, Africa seems way off the mark if sentiments made by Mugari are anything to go by.

With a total population of about 45 million, Uganda has an estimated 12 percent of its population living with disabilities, and 22 percent of jobless people there have a disability, according to the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda.

On record, nevertheless, Uganda’s National Policy on Disability aims at promoting equal opportunities for enhanced empowerment, participation, and protection of the rights of people with disabilities.

Botswana, ranked top in Southern Africa at upholding democracy and human rights, has 4.5 percent of its population living with disabilities, yet there is still very little good news for them (the disabled).

Botswana currently has an estimated population of 2.7 million people. Like in several other African countries where disabled people have to endure hardships, according to the UNDP, Botswana’s people with disabilities have to contend with economic exclusion, higher levels of poverty, and restricted access to information, transportation, and public spaces.

Yet apart from Botswana’s 1996 National Policy on Care for People with Disabilities, which amongst other things stresses the importance of integrating people with disabilities, the African nation is a signatory to five of the nine core international human rights treaties as well as key regional human rights instruments.

Meanwhile, not all African countries admit failing their own people living with disabilities.

In Zambia, for instance, authorities claim they have every reason to celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, according to Frankson Musukwa, who is the country’s Director-General at the Zambia Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

“For the Zambian side, this day is important, a day we reflect on the collective achievement of persons with disabilities, a day we celebrate the government’s inclusivity approach. We have achieved considerable progress and we are on the right trajectory to create an inclusive Zambia for all. President Hakainde Hichilema has demonstrated good political will to inclusivity and to leaving no persons with disabilities in decision-making processes,” Musukwa said.

The Zambia Agency for Persons with Disabilities is a quasi-government institution established in 2012 by an Act of Parliament with the sole purpose of advising relevant State organs and institutions on the provision of equal opportunities, empowerment programs, and facilities to persons with disabilities.

Based on statistics from the World Health Organization, about two million Zambians or 15 percent of the country’s population have a disability.