The Great Depression in the US lasted from 1929 to 1939. Franklin Roosevelt, who was president from 1933 to 1945, nursed the country through the dark days by initiating a rebuilding programme of an economy devastated by the Second World War.
He did this while bound to a wheelchair, having suffered from poliomyelitis in his earlier life. He did not let this physical disability get in his way to achieving greatness and helping his country go through a period that would have consumed a lesser person.
Franklin is in good company among physically challenged people who achieved greatness. There is Steven Hawkings, the late pre-eminent scientist; Stevie Wonder, the blind musician of note and Beethoven who is known as the father of classical music though he was deaf.
Locally, we celebrate Henry Wanyoike who has soared above physical disability to excel as a Paralympic athlete, putting Kenya in the global map. These people have defied all odds to excel in their chosen fields.
These individuals are merely a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people living with disabilities across the globe. Nearly 1.7 million people in Kenya live with some kind of disability. Inopportunely, we do not have enough facilities in place to support persons with disabilities to live and thrive as equal members of society. They remain disadvantaged because of their functional limitations, lack of skills, illiteracy, lack or minimal access to basic services (health and education), technical, and communication and information services.
Further, they are unable to operate and run their own businesses in a country where the informal sector is the biggest employer. And when they engage in business, they have to fight it out with their able bodied colleagues. It is this tough labour market that makes small and medium enterprises an appealing alternative income source. Like any of us, people with disabilities don’t want to be dependent on others to do things for them—they want to be self-sufficient and to live with a sense of mastery and dignity.
Mainstreaming them into the economy is an essential requirement for sustainable development. They are entitled to equal treatment and autonomy, but proactive measures are needed to make this happen. The economic exclusion of persons with disabilities is unacceptable in the face of social progress witnessed around the globe. The government has enacted laws aimed at improving the situation of people with disabilities by promoting accessibility, participation, and equality in all areas of life, higher employment rates and inclusive education as well as social protection and necessary health services.
The latest effort is a joint collaboration between the UK and Kenyan governments to host the first ever Global Disability Summit held in July 2018 in London.
The summit resulted in commitments aimed at protecting the rights of persons with disabilities through legislation and action plans on disability inclusion, supporting them in accessing technology and increasing the affordability of assistive technology.