10 January 2013

Uganda: Disability Laws - Speaker Needs to Keep Her Promise?

The year 2013 has come and, as usual, many people have set targets of what they want to achieve during this new year.

For institutions, usually (though not always) their targets reflect aspirations of the people they serve, aiming to complete any unfinished business from the previous year, as well as setting new ones for the new year.

In 2012, the disability movement was blessed to receive several promises from the government, including a pledge by the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, to expedite the process of passing disability- friendly legislation.

One element of such a legal framework could be a law that provides for affirmative action in regard to the employment of persons with disabilities (PWDs). The need for this action is inspired by the notion that the government seems to have abdicated its responsibility of finding jobs for PWDs as it is the case with the rest of the citizens. The speaker is one of the proponents of this idea, and she pledged to support the disability fraternity in ensuring that such a law is in place.

The Speaker's comments follow a petition presented to her by the disability movement during a luncheon organised at the Kampala Serena hotel on December 3, 2012 to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. In the petition, the disability fraternity in Uganda want government to enact laws that will compel government institutions to employ them under the principles of affirmative action espoused in the 1995 Constitution.

To the disability movement, the absence of deliberate efforts by government to find jobs for persons with disabilities is tantamount to violation of the rights of PWDs to employment opportunities in the public sector. The existing laws simply urge the private sector to employ more PWDs. For instance, the Income Tax Act provides for 2% tax exemption for any private employer who employs ten or more PWDs.

In essence, the government is providing an incentive to the private sector while it is silent about itself and its role in the public sector. This has had various challenges regarding access to employment by PWDs by government at national and local levels. Government jobs adverts attest to the reluctance to employ PWDs and reflect disability insensitivity, because they lack statements such as "Qualified PWDs are encouraged to apply" and instead promote sentiments such as "previous work experience and ability to drive," so to say--qualities most PWDs do not have.

The foregoing does not promote employment opportunities for PWDs and is indicative of persistent negative attitudes towards persons with disabilities-- that they can't work for themselves. In her response, Speaker Kadaga expressed the same concerns and pledged to support all disability-related bills in Parliament (such as the Persons with Disabilities Amendment Bill, the Building Control Bill, the Special Needs and Inclusive Education Policy 2011, the National Policy on Disability 2006 and National Council for Disability Amendment Bill 2010).

The move is intended to ensure a level ground for PWDs to realise equal opportunities. This decision has since excited PWDs who now seem to have a glimpse of a future. Many PWDs believe that affirmative action is the way to go, since the majority of PWDs (educated and skilled) can't compete favourably for jobs. Its absence only serves to perpetuate intolerable levels of unemployment among this section of the population.

This is exacerbated by high dropout and low completion rates of learners with disabilities within the education sector. Even then, persons with disabilities with knowledge and skills still find accessing gainful employment quite difficult. As Parliament reconvenes from the Christmas recess, to conduct this year's business, we wish to reiterate the speaker's noble pledge to the disability movement.

Although laws in themselves are not a panacea to the problems and challenges faced by the disability movement, they at least do provide a sound starting point towards finding a solution.

The author is a Communications Manager, National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (NUDIPU).

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