In part eight of our series on disability and education, supported by Nudipu, Shifa Mwesigye explores claims that even the few persons with disability that make it to the apex of the education system have a lot of trouble finding a job.
The sound of Norah Nantongo’s steel legs clicking, stretching, snapping and locking will send a chill down your spine as you imagine the pain she must be going through when she is tightening these metals against her skin and bones.
Nantongo adjusts her walking shoes to straighten them so she can move. She was born with crippled legs.
She walks with calculated steps; one, two, three, four and then settles onto a chair. She then adjusts the steel braces again to bend them so she can sit comfortably.
When she talks about her private venture, making jewellery, I ask that she shows me some samples.
But they are in an office outside and going to get them means repeating the whole process again with her braces. She looks around to spot someone she can send.
“Joseph, please help me bring my bag,” she says to a colleague, Joseph Ddungu, who obliges.
Nantongo graduated with a degree in Information Technology from Kampala International University, gaining the skills of working in a fast-paced IT or telecom company.
Instead she is a volunteer at National Union for Disabled Persons of Uganda (Nudipu) making necklaces, bracelets, and earrings in order to earn an extra shilling. Her customer base is limited by her disability so she only sells to work colleagues and friends.
Yet this is not the kind of life she dreamed of on her graduation day in 2012. Back then she hoped for her dream job at MTN Uganda.
“I remember my graduation day; it was a Friday. I travelled from Gomba, my village, with my sister and brother. My mum couldn’t come because she was organising my party back home. We arrived at the graduation ground at 9am.
When they read my name I felt so excited, it was a good achievement. It was not easy completing my studies because of my physical disability,” Nantongo recalls. “I had been struggling since primary school through to secondary and then university. So on hearing my name, I realised I had finally arrived at what I had been searching for.”
Her family believed in her but did not have money for her tuition. She found a Canadian sponsor, John Veldhuis, in her church, Kasaka Church of Uganda in Gomba. At university, KIU waived some of her tuition and also provided equipment.
“He [Veldhuis] helped me by funding my surgery at Mulago. Before that, I was moving in a wheelchair and on my four limbs. My parents were interested in my education because I was very hard-working and showed interest in my studies,” Nantongo said.
But after her graduation, reality set in; the hard task of finding a job – she admits it is harder for persons with disabilities (PWDs), especially the physically disabled. Her first application letter was hand delivered to Gomba district headquarters where she unsuccessfully applied to become a receptionist.
“The problem is that you walk in with your application together with an able-bodied person. Now if you are physically handicapped and it is obvious, you are disqualified before you even turn your back,” Nantongo adds.
After trying a few more times for consideration, she moved to Kampala, sending her application letter to MTN Uganda where she applied for a job as an administrator. They didn’t call her back. Rapid, an organisation for PWDs, also didn’t call her back. ADD, an NGO asked her to wait, which she is still doing. Several others have treated her the same way.
She finally concluded that the lack of experience had kept her out of a job as she had the necessary academic papers to land a job.
“We had a workshop with private sector players, NGOs and other stakeholders and we complained about unemployment. They [employers] said PWDs were expensive. If I needed crutches, they would have to first buy them for me; If I was deaf, they would have to look for an interpreter, or a helper for me if I was blind. So, whenever they saw disabled people, they concluded we were too expensive to maintain,” she recalls.
Even when she finds a job, Nantongo and many like her cannot access buildings which have no ramps, lifts, whose doors are too high and don’t have toilet facilities for PWDs.
“Moving is very difficult, especially on storeyed buildings. Yet, as volunteers, we do not have a specific job. Now you have found me here at the reception welcoming visitors, next week you may find me in the field. This also hurts me because I am not in a specific place. I do not earn a salary. What I am getting is experience,” she says, before adding that at Nudipu she has learnt how to write a report, interact with people, carry out research and do fieldwork.
While employment is a right for any person who is qualified, there is a general unemployment problem in Uganda, whether for qualified or unqualified, disabled or able-bodied Ugandans. The jobs available are very few compared to the students coming out of the university. But PWDs have it harder in the current fragile labour market because of the stereotypes and prejudices, especially from employers who have no experience working with PWDs.
The national policy on disability in Uganda states that most potential employers do not give PWDs a chance to compete for employment even where they have the necessary qualifications and experience. Nudipu’s executive director, Edson Ngirabakunzi, says employers who have interacted with PWDs such as Crane bank, ENHAS and Kakira Sugar Works, give testimony that they work well and these companies continue to employ PWDs.
This does not negate the fact that PWDs still face stiff competition and challenges in accessing jobs in the labour market. The problem starts at home and in the society where PWDs grow up. From discrimination to the usage of stigmatising language against them, PWDs are portrayed as people who cannot contribute to the development of society. People grow up thinking PWDs are handicapped and helpless.
This mindset affects policy formulation that projects a perception that PWDs don’t have value and quality in society.
“When you look at the laws and policies available, Section 6 of the Employment Act gives leeway to the employer to discriminate against PWDs by allowing them to recruit depending on the ingrate nature of the job. But who determines the nature of the job? If I say this PWD cannot do this job, what if I am using negative discretion?” Ngirabakunzi asks.
To address the employment problem among PWDs, Beatrice Kaggya, the acting commissioner for Disabilities and Elderly at ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, says government established a vocational training programme to equip PWDs with employable skills. She says these programmes are however limited in scope and no longer meet the current market employable skills requirements.
Government then moved to provide a tax incentive of 15 per cent on employers who recruit at least 10 per cent people with disabilities. This provision has since been changed and is now at five per cent of employees, leading to a two per cent tax break.
“The law was changed because the government was losing so much money as employers were using PWDs by recruiting them for lower-cadre jobs and then registering for tax reductions. There is also the feeling from people that we shouldn’t be bothering PWDs. ‘Why can’t government give them unemployment benefits and they stay at home?’ they wonder. Yet, PWDs too should enjoy the human right of living in society like anybody else and it is government’s responsibility to ensure that PWDs access jobs on the labour market,” Ngirabakunzi says.
“Government should encourage itself to employ PWDs. Why should it give tax incentives to private companies when government itself does not provide a certain percentage of its jobs to PWDs?” he says.
He says government should make it mandatory for employers to provide incentives such as equipment and accommodation to qualified PWDs.
“If I can only do my job with a speech computer, the employer should be able to provide the additional software to enable, say, a blind person to do their job. If you know a PWD will produce quality work, why not provide the incentives and accommodation. Qualified PWDs will in fact bring better output. People should not look at disability. Test us, let us compete. Don’t use my disability to deny me a job,” Ngirabakunzi says.
Kaggya says government has started a programme to sensitise employers on recruiting qualified and skilled PWDs. She says they realise that the absence of a national employment policy has prevented affirmative action for majority of PWDs who remain unemployed and underemployed.
Kaggya says government has also put in place a Shs 3bn special grant from the ministry of Finance for PWDs to organise themselves into groups and access the money to start their own income-generating activities.
This Observer feature was supported by the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (Nudipu)