A report by the World Bank estimates that one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability, and disability prevalence is higher for developing countries. One-fifth of the estimated global total, or between 110 million and 190 million people, experience significant disabilities.
It’s easy to take the fact that we are empowered or can easily do things because we do not have a disability or no one close to us has a disability for granted. The reality is that many Kenyans and Africans face overwhelming challenges either socially or economically. As a lawyer, I have started to see the importance of empowering people with disabilities not from a point of charity but as a right. It is every person’s right to live with dignity.
People with intellectual disabilities are often the subjects of multiple discrimination, often lacking opportunities for employment or education. For example, when you look at the Kenyan education system in public primary schools, you realise that special units have been set up. These are meant to accommodate children with intellectual disabilities such as autism. However, there is a gap when it comes to transition. Many are left learning in the special units up to a point when they are too old to be in primary schools and hence they have to leave. Often, you find that they still lack many skills such as communication. It is understandable that people are different. You cannot change the disability in a person but you can empower them.
The different ways of empowering persons with intellectual disabilities include creating a system where they can access justice and teaching them life skills that can allow them to access employment. Another challenge we have in Kenya is that, persons who are of unsound mind are not allowed to hold public offices. My concern arises where the constitution requires for equal representation of persons with disabilities in Parliament. Who represents persons with intellectual disabilities? Who is speaking out for them politically?
The United Nations carried out a survey in India and found that 25 per cent of women with intellectual disabilities had been raped and 6 per cent of women with disabilities had been forcibly sterilized. In Kenya, many people go through the same thing. The difficulty arises when they want to speak out but they lack the ability to do so. In other situations, the perpetrators of violence take advantage and discredit their claims. It is difficult for the victims to give their accounts in court especially when they lack intermediaries who can break down the language of the court to them.
I have done a little bit of research, mostly through experience. The best way is to use a rights based approach to empower Kenyans living with intellectual disabilities. Some of the ways include supporting victims of violence who have intellectual disabilities, providing support to the families of these people and also teaching them to be self advocates meaning that they are taught how to live independently.
We must, as a country, find ways of supporting the parents of persons with intellectual disabilities. Many empowerment initiatives are often focused on the people with intellectual disabilities and forget about offering psychological and economic support to those who take care of them. Many people with intellectual disabilities are marginalised.
It is important for the community and the country as a whole to find different tools of social change. No one should be left behind. A good method would be to look at the restoration of people’s dignity by forming self help groups. The groups bring together a community of people willing to exchange ideas. The benefits of having them is that people are able to pull resources together and enabling them to save and invest. Further, they offer mental support through sharing experiences, challenges and success stories. Gender based violence is often addressed in these forums. This happens when parents discover new ways of correcting their children when they make mistakes without using violent means like corporal punishment. They also learn on proper nutrition for children with intellectual disabilities that help them grow as healthy individuals.
Further, the aspect of reproductive health care and knowledge is taken into account. Children are taught about the changes that happen in their bodies as they grow into young adults. Parents also share the fears they have such as what would happen when a child with an intellectual disability becomes sexually active. Many times, they are not sure whether or not the romantic relationships are consensual.
Therefore, we cannot underestimate the importance of empowering families. It is in creating the foundation of a good family support system that persons with intellectual disabilities can develop into hopeful and independent individuals.