8 November 2012

Uganda: Feature - Despite Good Policies, Many PWDs Continue to Struggle

In part five of our special series, done with support from the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda, Alon Mwesigwa reports from Ibanda on people

defying odds.

Yusuf Tabu sits quietly on a veranda of a small hotel in Kigarama trading centre, Ibanda district. He laces a thread through an old shoe he is repairing for Shs 500.

Wearing a blue shirt and a pale black jacket, Tabu displays an immense chest, larger arms, but also a face of a man quietly withering into his evening.

Glancing at the lower part of his body, you are struck by dusty, small legs - as small as those of a three-year-old. Tabu cannot walk, only crawl. Now 52, he was hit by polio when he was barely two, and has never walked again.

"That time, we didn't know anything about polio," Tabu says, "When my parents learnt that I was sick, they started taking me to the witch-doctors, but it all came to nothing. There was no such a thing as immunisation."

Tabu works half a kilometre from his home. With no wheelchair, he crawls a few metres to the main road, where he requests bicycle riders to drop him to his workplace, where he can only wait for people to bring their shoes for repair.

"I know some of these people complain that I disturb them, but I have no option," Tabu says.

On a good day Tabu makes Shs 3,000. On bad days, when he can retire without seeing a single customer, he usually has to forgo lunch.

"It [earning] is small, but it's better than going to the streets to beg," says Tabu, who lives with his brother, until he can sustain a family of his own.

"Sometimes people look at you as a bother to them and you also hate yourself, but life goes on," Tabu says, almost tearfully.

Like anyone else, he has nursed big dreams - to have a wife, children and a family of his own. For now, though, these are just dreams.

"No one wants to marry a man without legs, again, a man who lives with his brother, and a man who needs someone to support him even when he is going for a short call," he laments. "I had a wife and a child, but they both died suddenly in the late 1990s and I have not got another one."

Richard Mwebaze, an in-law, describes Tabu as a hardworking man who is only limited by his disability.

"He relates well with people, works hard, and he has never lost hope despite being disabled," Mwebaze says.

Yet Tabu is not alone; thousands of people with disabilities (PWDs) in Uganda are struggling to make ends meet, with hundreds still marginalised, living off charity on the streets.

Catherine Nuwagaba, 19, is a case in point. She lost her leg at three, when she accidently stepped into fire in the kitchen at home. Many, including some family members, looked at her as a waste.

"People started laughing; at school, fellow students refused to associate with me - not even letting me play with them. I felt lost and had to leave school just when I had reached S.2," Nuwagaba says. "Even today wherever I pass, I see people looking at me with disgust and I wonder why. When I became pregnant, they gossiped that I would die in labour, but I gave birth to a healthy baby."

Nuwagaba and Tabu's situations are common to many disabled persons, despite Uganda having policies advocating for respect and equal opportunities for the PWDs.

Article 35 (1) of the 1995 constitution obliges the state and society to take measures to ensure PWDs realise their full mental and physical potential.

Indeed, Uganda has several laws for the protection of the disabled - like the Equal Opportunities Act 2007; the PWDs Act 2006. There is also political affirmative action, with each region in Uganda having an MP representing persons with disabilities

However, critics say that in spite of all this, little is seen on the ground. Consequently, many fake organisations have cheated the disabled of their little savings, under the guise of promising to help them. According to Robert Mugume, a councillor for PWDs in Ibanda town, such organisations ask the disabled to pay about Shs 5,000 to qualify for assistance.

"That is where it stops; you can never see them again. Most of the disabled people here don't receive support from anywhere except their immediate family members."


Different estimates put the proportion of Ugandans with disabilities at between 7% and 15% of the population. The National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (Nudipu) website says three quarters of these remain uneducated, despite having the universal free education in place to increase enrolment in schools.

Only 2.2% of PWDs in Uganda have attained post-secondary education, and 90% do not go beyond primary seven. Research shows disabled persons are a key group of people that have not benefited much from universal free education programmes.

In September, a Ugandan was elected to the UN party of states council in New York to represent the disabled - presenting an opportunity for the plight of the disabled in Uganda, and what the government has done so far, to be portrayed on the international scene.

"We will use this opportunity to lobby for more funds - to mobilise ourselves to the last person in the village down there," says Martin Mwesigwa Babu, Uganda representative on the committee of experts at the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Babu agrees that the disabled people remain the most impoverished in Uganda. It is estimated that a whopping 38% of households headed by a disabled person live in chronic poverty.

"We urge all the disabled persons to form groups at the district level and register with us. There we can be able to monitor them and in case assistance comes in, we pass it to them."

While there are no guarantees, Tabu, Nuwagaba and hundreds of thousands of other disabled Ugandans will be hoping that the future will bring more respect, and support to realise their potential.

This Observer feature was prepared with support from the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (Nudipu)

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