It is a huge indictment for many while others face their challenges and stand resolute. More often than not, people with disabilities are subject to a barrage of harsh comments, criticism, discrimination from all sectors of society and sometimes even their own family stigmatise them which leads to crippling depression and often questioning one’s raison d’etre.
But, the biggest blow remains the continued and deliberate manner in which society sidelines citizens and exclude them with intention of anything that any fully able bodied human would label as their birth.
Disability is described as an impairment that may be cognitive, developmental, intellectual, mental, physical, sensory, or the combination. It limits a person’s activities in a significant manner and may be present from birth or occur during a person’s lifetime like being involved in a car accident or falling off a building during construction.
According to Meliherius Haukambe, a disabled child has to put in triple the effort to make it in life as they prepare for life after school and the unwelcoming society that awaits them. “Despite some really good efforts from government and our development partners, the situation faced by persons with disabilities remains dire,” said the Acting Director of the National Disability Council of Namibia.
With the unfortunate having taken a toll on their ability to be productive, dealing with a society which is reluctant or akward about including people with disabilities remains a stumbling block. Haukambe says the council continues to exert pressure on society through advocacy and awareness creation. Sadly, this is yielding the requisite results.
“You look at the education system for example. Most of the learners living with disability are unable to make it past grade 10. The system itself does not make provision for the person with disability’s competence in a competitive society to excel,” he said.
For Namibians who are deaf, Namibia is currently only able to provide a small number with with information as the country only has six sign language interpreters, an indication according to Haukambe that sums up how this segment of society are left to struggle all by themselves.
Also, he claims persons with disabilities have fewer opportunities for employment since the school system is not able to adequately accommodate learners who require high levels of support. Of the 105 000 persons with disability, living in Namibia according to the 2011 National Housing and Population Census, the acting director says a huge chunk remain unproductive and fail to make it from a mere statistic relevant for record keeping to being considered a real life human being endowed with human rights in line with the Namibian Constitution.
This injustice is further exacerbated by Namibia’s classification as an upper middle income country. Namibia has one of the highest rates of socio-economic inequalities globally and it becomes a given that persons with disabilities are faced with a double burden of poverty because of limited opportunities in relation to employment.
While Haukambe highlights that there are no current statistics on persons with disability further entrenching their marginalization, rendering them the status as people who are left behind.
“However, as marginalized and persons who are left behind, there are only a few practical steps deliberately taken to get us on par. A huge chunk of our populace, notably children between the ages of 0-4 years have never attended early childhood development programmes. How do you expect these children to compete for a better life?”
On the other hand, you then have those who have made strides to the top but still are unable to get jobs as the system is even more repellant when it comes to persons with disabilities, Haukambe added.
“We still need to educate the nation of our worth. People with disabilities face stigma and discrimination even in their own spaces of comfort. Some of these things are cultural. We all know that in certain cultures if a person gives birth to a child with a disability, they feel cursed. We are also well aware of parents up to today who do not want to take their disabled child to school even when the school is close by. So how do you expect these children to make it in life when there are already stumbling blocks starting from home?”
Haukambe believes that besides the good literature of policies and laws in place; all is just talk with no action. While the implementation of policies in general remains an elephant in the room, the Acting Director is of the opinion that the impact has inflicted a sore on the self esteem of persons with disabilities.
“Sometimes I am of the opinion that we are being left our deliberately. But we all know that in this country, if you are not well connected, you will not benefit. You must come through the door by knowing someone. How then about the disabled persons? The fact that there is no thought that we need to also benefit makes me think we are being sidelined deliberately.”
“For example, we want to know how persons with disabilities are benefiting from the fishing quotas. In our monitoring assessments as the council, we want to know how many companies that are beneficiaries of quotas are owned by persons with disabilities. We cannot be happy if there are no persons with disabilities getting fishing quotas because we want to benefit like other Namibians.”
Haukambe also took a swipe at national projects aimed at improving the lives of all Namibians, except people with disabilities. He swiped references to the Mass Housing Projects amongst many to be one that never considered those with disabilities.
“Projects like the Mass Housing, how did they benefit persons with disabilities? This house can belong to you. You can fit in every corner, but I cannot fit in every corner, let alone the ablution facilities. So how do we preach inclusivity when our needs are nowhere close to the consideration table?”
The architecture and structure of buildings in the modern era have been a bone of contention with buildings still not constructed with the needs of people with disabilities in mind. Haukambe reiterates that architecture should be inclusive by design. “We have people being turned down for jobs because the building designs do not cater for the needs of the disabled.
Just like we also need to know how we are benefiting from the mining sector, we also want to know how many persons with disabilities have been resettled on those resettlement farms. Their criteria for allocation on farms do not speak to persons with disabilities. The mere fact that you are in a wheelchair, you will get no score at all. These are the things that disturb us.”
Technology only for some
Most banks today market their brands on the excellence with the purpose to attract and retain clients. Some of these clients are people with disabilities. Parallel to this narrative, many have been taking the lead in technological advancements aimed at improving the lives of their clients.
Over the last two years, banks have introduced touchscreen ATMs which will slowly see the ancient keypad look and feel being phased out. It is move like this that Haukambe highlights as not catering for the basic needs of persons with disabilities.
Para-athlete gold medalist Ananias Shikongo who is blind said although technological advancements are aimed at improving their day to day, it is not always as such. Shikongo, who owns a small business, said the ATM in particular will not benefit them in any way.
“We the blind people will not benefit from those touch screen ATMs. They will make our lives even more difficult. Because we cannot see, we will need sound. You can put in your pin with the keypad but you cannot do anything after that unless you have someone to help you. So how does this make my life easier?” asked Shikongo. It also feels people vulnerable and exposed to crime.
Shikongo highlighted security as key compromised component when it comes to touchscreen ATMs. “There is space for you to use the sound option but then you need to come with your headphones. Also, if you are with someone who wants to make use of the opportunity to take your money, this is the perfect time especially after you have already entered your pin,” said Shikongo.
While the nation took offence on the low budget allocated to the youth ministry, Haukambe said no one bothered to even fathom the peanuts the National Disability Council of Namibia received.
“The best we got from government was N$8.6 million and people still go out there and say we fund people with disabilities. We don’t know how much we will get next year and the year after,” said Haukambe.
The council was establish with no funds and operated penniless in its genesis. Haukambe said although those who pushed for the act that established the council had good intentions; it was merely an act of window dressing. The lack of financial resources translates to insufficient manpower.
The media has failed
For some time now, advocates for the rights of persons with disabilities have blasted the media for failing to address their plights with the right tone.
“You refer to someone as ‘wheelchair’ bound.” What does it mean? If I’m bound, it means I sleep, eat, and wash in this chair. I don’t do that. I sleep on my bed and not in a wheelchair. Then you say the person is living with a disability. You live with your family and not with a disability. It is either you have a disability as a condition or you don’t. So, when one uses terms like those, it takes away so much.”
Be that as it may, disabled people are no lesser human being and have the same potential for greatness. “ As disabled people we just want to be treated with good manners, Haukambe advised.