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Uganda: Disability disabled

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Uganda: Disability disabled

People with disabilities are often shunned in Africa but Uganda is one of the few countries where there is a deliberate policy to include them in all walks of life, including government. The annual Hot Pink Catwalk fashion shows go a step further, demonstrating the capabilities of the disabled. Epajjar Ojulu reports from Kampala.

Like elsewhere in Africa, people with disabilities in Uganda have from time immemorial borne the burden of being regarded as ‘undesirable incarnates of evil’, to be shunned or eliminated from society. Although this demeaning and dehumanising attitude is still unfortunately very prevalent throughout Africa, Uganda has taken significant and deliberate steps to give hope to people with disability. It is, perhaps, one of the few countries on the continent to reserve parliamentary seats for people with disabilities and to appoint some of them to government ministerial posts.

Since 1986, when President Yoweri Museveni came to power, the blind, deaf or lame have been appointed to ministerial positions as a constitutional requirement, which demands that affirmative action be taken to ameliorate the suffering of vulnerable members of society, including people with disabilities. For a country where up to 15% of its estimated 40m people have one form of disability or the other, affirmative action is an admission by the government that a big segment of its population has for long been ignored and it is time to make amends, by taking on the moral responsibility of caring for the more unfortunate members of society.

In spite of the positive measures to change the stigma against them, people with disability have continued to suffer from social prejudice, which will not go away in the short term. “Children with spina bifida and hydrocephalus are kept out of public view by their parents to avoid the social stigma associated with such children,’’ says Livingstone Sekatawa of the Association of Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus of Uganda. Children with hydrocephalus and spina bifida are identified by their abnormally big heads and stunted growth.

Michelle Omamteker of the Malengo Foundation, which is behind the Hot Pink Catwalk fashion shows, says she drew the inspiration to highlight the plight of people with disabilities from the UN’s Sustainable Development agenda, which calls for the reduction of inequalities driven by social stigma against people with disability and other vulnerable members of society. In particular, she says, there is concern about the fate of people with physical disabilities, persons with albinism, dwarfism, the blind and the deaf, who have for long been treated with disdain by their communities, which consider them a burden to society. Yet they could be harnessed to develop the country.

Hot Pink Catwalk fashion show

It is on this premise that the first Hot Pink Catwalk fashion show for people with disabilities was held in October 2016, with the objective of increasing public awareness about their plight and to build confidence among the disabled, to help them appreciate their worth to society. Omamteker says the way forward is to initiate programmes that embolden the disabled to develop the necessary confidence to face their adversity and to show their communities that disability is not inability.

Indeed, successive editions of the Hot Pink fashion show have demonstrated that people with disability are willing to change not only their perception of themselves, but also, that of society. The catwalk of the lame, the albinos, the blind, the amputees and the deaf, in the glare of a cheering audience that turned up to witness the event, is evidence of their confidence in themselves.

Omamteker’s bet is that the youth, who are the majority audience at fashion shows, will trigger lasting change in the perception of the next generation of people with disability, and that of other Ugandans towards disability. She argues that the youth are a fertile ground for nurturing new pro-disability attitudes.

The Malengo Foundation hopes to use its annual fashion shows to not only raise awareness about the rights and concerns of people with disability, but also to ensure engagement, participation and adoption of the UN global goals of ending discrimination against people with disability. Omamteker’s show has become a firm fixture in the calendar each year. The 2017 Hot Pink Catwalk Charity Show had people with disability under the spotlight at the Imperial Resort Hotel, Entebbe on the shores of Lake Victoria. The function ended with the participants taking to the floor to showcase their dancing moves. They were joined by able-bodied members of the audience.

Breaking myths

Held under the theme, ‘Breaking myths’, the show aimed at eliminating stereotypes and myths about the perceived differences between able-bodied and disabled persons that perpetuate inequality and discrimination. “Development says let’s move forward, but inclusive development says, let’s move forward without leaving anyone behind,’’ says Stephen Ndhaye from Uganda’s finance and economic planning ministry. Inclusive development would have sounded like empty rhetoric if no evidence existed of people with disability who have been able to showcase their skills to prove that disability is by no means inability.

One shining example is Brenda Areto, the Makerere University student whose studies were cut short eight years ago by a motorbike accident which damaged her spinal cord and condemned her to the wheelchair for the rest of her life. “When my physician told me that I would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life, I thought I was finished,’’ she says. Since the accident eight years ago, Brenda has picked up the pieces and is looking into the future with fresh optimism. “I want to prove to everyone that in spite of my physical limitation, I am not finished,’’ she told a local website, adding, “the accident hardened me into a fighter.’’

Indeed, Areto is among the top designers in the country today. “Art has always been my passion and the accident I was involved in could not extinguish that passion in me,’’ she says. She has startled everyone with designs for all sorts of disabled people, from those in wheelchairs, to the lame, the blind, the deaf, amputees and albinos. Last year’s Hot Pink show, held at the Uganda Manufacturers Association grounds in Lugogo, Kampala indicated not only growing enthusiasm among the participants but also, their diversity.

The venue was friendly to all the performers, including those in wheelchairs, who transported themselves into the venue with ease without helpers, to a standing ovation from the audience. There is no doubt these annual fashion shows will not entirely eliminate the stigma against people with disabilities. What is certain, though, is that the long-held belief that people with disability are a burden to their families and communities and undesirable incarnates of evil is under assault, and will, no doubt, be a thing of the past in not too distant a future.

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