The taste of independent living
One of the highlights of this ending year was my visit to Japan where I spent almost a month in the city of Tokyo. I was one of the invited with support from JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) from six African countries which included Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda,Namibia, Zambia of course Malawi.
One thing that struck me most in Tokyo was how the Japanese government has taken efforts to promote a barrier free environment to enable full participation for persons with disabilities in the socio and economic activities in spite of their diverse kinds of disabilities. On our arrival in Tokyo all of us with physical disabilities were given motorised wheelchairs to enable us easy mobility during our stint in Tokyo.
Cruising in the streets
The motorised wheelchair gave some of us a huge sense of thrill and independence as we cruised through the accessible streets of Tokyo all alone without any assistance. It was at this moment that I realised the awesome power of how technology can bring a revolution to the life of a disabled person. I saw how persons with severe disabilities were enabled through the use of technology to be productive.
My mind drifted back to the situation of disabled people back home especially in the rural areas where 90% reside. I imagined how technology could transform their lives and greatly empower them by enabling them to lead independent lives. I thought of many disabled children who are being denied basic rights such as the right to education just because the exorbitent cost of assistive devices put them out of reach for their families.
As I cruised the streets without the asistance of anyobody, I was amazed by the fact that I was doing things independently. It meant that my Personal Assistant was ‘freed’ to engage in other activities. In other words this would mean that mothers especially in the rural areas would be able to do other productive activities such as working in the fields. My experience, due to travelling through the length and breath of Malawi as part of my advocacy, is that many parents would rather go and work in the field other that carry children to school.
Education and liberation
I was born at a time where the use of wheelchair was a non starter. But I was also conscious of the fact that my mother was very a special woman who did not lose hope just because I was disabled. She put all her efforts to ensure that I go to school despite ill advice from some of her close relatives and friends to do otherwise. Because of cultural beliefs and values, many parents are not like her and as a result many chlidren who are brilliant are failing to go to school juct because of the fact that they have disabilities and have absolutely no access to assistive devices.
During our stay in Japan we were impressed by the high levels of investments that have been made by the Japanese govenrment to ensure that citizens with disabilities are accorded maximum support in order to ensure that their human resource are not going to waste but instead become assets to their communities and the country.
This is what is lacking in many countries including my own Malawi. Unlike Japan where disability has been mainstreamed into the development agenda and thus making disability support sustainable, in many African countries, the approach towards disability work is adhoc and at most detached from the mainstream development agenda. This is more expensive for the government in the long run because it means that a certain section of the population is left behind in terms of development. This is the section that will be a liability, indeed a burden to that society.
Malawi vs. Japan
Some have argued that that one cannot compare Japan to a country like Malawi for socio-economic reasons. I beg to differ because once upon a time Japan was in the same situation as Malawi and it is simply because of the correct policies and political will that Japan in this respect has gotten as far as it has. It is possible to do the same in Malawi if a number of things are put in place.
Firstly, the Government should learn and respect the voice of disabled people through their organisations because they know what the solutions to their problems are. Secondly Government should go beyond sheer rhetoric and walk the talk. Mere political talk will not change anything and the Malawian government is guilty of that. Thirdly, the policy framework in Malawi is one of the best in Africa but that is just on paper. Malawi is one of the countries that has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability and is also sitting on one of the finest Disability Bills which is yet to be enacted into law. But it means little due to the government’s paralysis in implementing issues especially related to disability.
A little bit of political willpower would galvanise the legislative process which will greatly enable a legal framework that will faciltate the mainstreaming of disability into the national development agenda. This means disability, being a crossing cutting issue, will be embedded across all development sectors be they health, education, housing employment and others.
I bellieve that once this is done, I will start seeing a lot of disabled chlidren going to school; assistive devices being made availlable to many disabled who are currently caught up in a cycle of man made poverty and deprivation.
Meanwhile I have a lot of hope as I enter 2012 and wait for the celebration of the passage of the Disability Bill into an equal opportunity legislation that will assist in making Malawi into becoming a barrier free country where disabled people will be accorded the dignity and the rights we have fought for many years