The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: Watching Helplessly

This is the third feature in our 10-part series analysing policy and practice on disability in Uganda. Alon Mwesigwa looks at how the disabled are left out of the information loop.

Sandra Karaki likes to stay informed. She loves news and she can do anything to know what is happening in and around the country. Yet Karaki faces one high hurdle: she is deaf. This means she can't listen to the radio and the newspapers are too expensive to buy daily.

"I don't have the money to buy [news] papers every day," she says.

However, Karaki can watch TV. But to get meaning from what she watches, there must be a sign language interpreter.

"I must be there to watch news," she says, beaming.

"I am happy that a number of TVs have signers to interpret for us when they are reading news."

TV stations with sign language interpreters include UBC, NBS TV, and Bukedde. While these TVs, including the state broadcaster UBC, have included sign language into their programming, not all programmes have interpreters.

"Mostly, they bring us sign language when reading news and that is all," Karaki says. "Without signers, we can only watch images without making sense of them."

Karaki is among some 700,000 deaf persons and hundreds of other people with disabilities (PWDs) in Uganda, who find it challenging to have access to any information, whether from government ministries or private entities.

"Many a time, we depend on the media for most of our information needs and if it [information] is not made possible for us to have access to this information, we are left out," Karaki argues.

The situation is not different from Simon Peter Lukala, a football fan. He supports Arsenal, but while he can watch players dribble past the other, Lukala, who is deaf and dumb, can hardly listen to the commentary.

"I love Arsenal; I just watch although I can't hear the commentary."

Article 41 of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda says every citizen has a right to access information in possession of the state unless the release of that information will jeopardise the country's security. In pursuit of the above article, the government enacted the 2005 access to information act. In regard to PWDs, the act provides in Article 5, the right to access all the information in possession of the state, if it won't jeopardise country's security.

For the PWDs, the Act provides in article 20 (5) that "Where a person with disability is prevented from reading, viewing or listening to the record concerned...the information officer shall if the person so requests, take responsible steps to make the record available in the form in which it's capable of being read, viewed or heard by that person."

Uganda being a signatory to the UN Convention on the rights of the disabled persons, the access to information act came handy to actualise the demands of the convention of the member states, among which is satisfying information needs of PWDs. The convention provides in article 21 for the freedoms of expression and opinion, and access to information.

Article 21(a) says the state shall take appropriate measures to "Provide information intended for the general public to persons with disabilities in accessible formats and technologies appropriate to different kinds of disabilities in a timely manner and without additional cost".

But according to Joseph Mbulamwana, the advocacy coordinator for the Uganda Association of the Deaf (UNAD), the access to information act hasn't had much impact on the disabled.

"Look, we depend on the media as our source of information; the problem comes because the format it's presented in doesn't favour us," he says.

"There are various categories of PWDs, the deaf and the blind are the most affected by the access to information."

Mbulamwana has only praises for government, after it compelled some televisions to have signers.

"At least Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has made UBC and other TVs to have sign language."

While some televisions have up to now not complied with UCC's directive, Fred Otunnu, UCC's spokesperson, says they are monitoring them and if they don't abide by their requirement, they could face the commission. The Persons with Disabilities Act 2006, Section 21, requires owners of television stations to provide sign language or a signer at least once in one of the major newscasts each day.

For the blind, the situation is worse. According to Mbulamwana, if they don't listen to the radio, then they can hardly find any writing in paper braille which they can read.

Challenge

While UCC has managed to compel TVs into getting signers, Otunnu acknowledges that this can't be achieved overnight, as the companies have to weigh their finances and see what they can afford.

"Having sign language experts is very expensive. And that's why at UCC we demand that at least, TVs have them when they are reading news bulletins. We would also not want other people to be left out, but we understand the financial constraints the TV owners go through."

Other areas

Article 23 of the UN convention says that information to the PWDs should go to helping live a better life by managing well their families and not to contract HIV/Aids. Section b of the article states that.

"... The rights of persons with disabilities to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to age-appropriate information, reproductive and family planning education are recognized [by state parties], and the means necessary to enable them to exercise these rights are provided".

Karaki, a mother of two, says most of the health units that provide these services have no signers.

"Most PWDs shun going to health centres because the environment there doesn't favour them," she says.

Mbulamwana said over 90% of the deaf shunned voluntary counselling and testing services due to lack of sign language interpreters at health facilities.

"There is a lot of information but it does not benefit the deaf. Many of them continue to be infected and miserably live with it unaware," he said.

But what should be done?

"We want employment of interpreters in all service sectors. Even the president, ministers should each have at least one. "Do you think there is a rally addressed by the president or minister and no deaf person attends?" wonders Mbulamwana.

Perhaps if such steps are taken, Karaki and Lukala can enjoy their freedom to access information, opinion and expression to the fullest. Otherwise for now, the legal provisions on access to information barely apply to persons with disability.

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

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