When information is hard to get

Tuesday, 21 October 2014 23:20 Written by  EMMANUEL AINEBYOONA & PAUL TAJUBA

When he was only six months old, Alexander Barugahare accidently touched a reed plant, (orubingo) which harmed his eyes. The 25-year-old says he was taken to Kasese Hospital for an optical surgery operation after the incident but it was too late for doctors to save his sight. In 2001, Barugahare says he was operated on for the second time in Mbarara and managed to recover little visual ability though it is not enough for him to see like others with normal eyesight.

Currently a first year student at Kyambogo University, in the Faculty of Special Needs and Rehabilitation, Barugahare is one among many persons with disabilities (PWDs) struggling to access information and public transport in the country.

“I only access government programmes through radio but to access television content, I have to listen attentively because I cannot watch the pictures,” he says.

He adds that voice command software used in computers cost about Shs1m, which is expensive for many PWDs.

“The major challenge is accessing written information from my colleagues and also them accessing mine basing on that fact that I use braille to communicate,” says Barugahare as he holds the braille machine, which his hand can locate with ease in his room at the North Hall.

A study conducted by Africa Media Barometer (AMB) in 2012 in Uganda, indicated that PWDs have been neglected in terms of access to Information Communication Technology (ICT). This is, however, contrary to the fundamental human rights as provided for in the fourth chapter of the Constitution of Uganda.

Article 29 of the Constitution provides for freedom of expression and press for all citizens. It also says, under Article 41 that every citizen has a right to access information in the State’s possession. The National Association of the Deaf (UNAD) executive director, Ambrose Murangira, also says it is a challenge for PWDs to access information.

“Most government programmes are communicated through radio channels. 90 per cent of the blind and deaf did not go to school which makes it hard for them to access communication in the newspapers,” says Murangira. As the government builds telecentres around the country through The National Information Technology Authority (NITA), people like Barugahare want it to allocate spaces for the disabled and also cut on the cost for the voice command software together with other accessories for PWDs.

Uganda happens to be a state party to the United Nations Convention on persons with disabilities. Uganda also adopted the treaty in 2008 and doubles as a member of the implementing committee of the Convention of persons with disabilities. With the AMB report citing little consideration that has been given to the needs of blind and deaf people in both the policy and the application of ICTs, UNAD is calling upon the government to implement the UN treaty on the rights of PWDs after it was signed to be implemented as a domestic law.

“I think that as PWDs, we get less than 10 per cent of the information from government about its programmes. For instance, it’s only Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) out of the television stations which has a sign-language interpreter for news but not all progammes,” says Murangira, adding that NBS Television also has one programme for the Week news reviews that happens only once at the weekend. NTV Uganda also has an interpreter only for the news review on Sunday (Seven Days) as well. However, a sign-language interpreter should be viewed on all the programmes as required by broadcast guidelines issued by the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC).

Doreen Ndeezi, the TV manager at UBC, says they have a sign language interpreter to enable the hearing-impaired access all the news programmes and other national events for example, the State-of-the-Nation Address and Budget reading day coverage. However, she says, recorded television programmes are a challenge in terms of human resource and time, saying that the station has few sign language interpreters.

For Barugahare, he would like the newspapers to appreciate that the blind cannot access print copies and should consider having stories put in braille in some sections of the news.

Hellen Atuhaire, 22, who has total visual impairment, says her wish is to fully participate in government programmes but some such as the electoral process, do not engage PWDs very well. Atuhaire says through the Electoral Commission, the government should develop ballot papers that allow the blind to vote candidates of their choice.

“Sometimes our guides use the opportunity to tick candidates who meet their own interests, not for us the blind,” says Atuhaire, a student of Guidance and Counselling at Kyambogo University.

Although the cost of hiring a guide to the visually impaired persons is high, Kyambogo University hires a guide for every blind student admitted to the institution. Leonard Ssewaje, a guide to Barugahare, says the university pays him Shs10,000 per day to help him go about his day-to-day activities.
According to Murangira, the association of the deaf together with other activist groups have been trying to push for the amendment of the Person with Disabilities Act 2006 in vain.
Uganda enacted the Persons with Disabilities Act in 2006, in fulfillment of the constitutional imperative under Article 35 (2) which states: “Parliament shall enact laws appropriate for the protection of persons with disabilities.”

“Unfortunately, in many instances this Act was drafted in vague and imprecise language, which failed to clearly articulate the agencies or persons bound to fulfill a number of the guarantees therein,” reads a memorandum of understanding signed between the Minister of Labour, Gender and Social Development, and a rights group, Disability Rights Coalition.

At the end of the day, PWDs have as mugh right to access public services. Such initiatives as that which Kyambogo University has, should be the norm and not done only by a few institutions.

The difficulty with using public transport

In a wheel chair acting as his office chair, Gabriel Nixon Okeny, the Warden of North Hall at Kyambogo University, says the wheel chair is always seen by public transport operators in Kampala as a hindrance and an inconvenience.
“My colleague was told to pay both his transport fare and for the wheelchair,” says Okeny, adding that the friend wheeled himself up to town after being asked to pay double.

The Uganda National Association of the Deaf (UNAD) executive director Ambrose Murangira explains that it is a big challenge for a deaf or blind person to identify a bus plying their route with the current transport system.

“For example when you board a bus how can a deaf or dumb person tell the bus driver to stop when they want to alight to their final destination?” asked Murangira. “You normally hear passengers telling the driver maasaowo (loosely translated to mean, ‘I shall be getting out there) but how can a PWD as him to stop?” asks Murangira.

He adds that it’s only the defunct Pioneer buses that were numbered to enable the deaf identify the buses for their routes. “It’s in Switzerland to be specific Zurich where buses are well numbered and can easily favour the PWDs.”
Alexander Barugahare, who has a vision impairment, says that taxi drivers sometimes charge him a lot of money once he is moving alone in Kampala.

“I prefer using boda boada because they help me reach my final destination and also help act as my guides at times,” says Barugahare. When alone, Barugahare uses the white chain as his path finder. The walking chain is a foldable walking tool for people who are visually impaired. It costs about Shs70,000.

Okeny says that town navigation on a wheel chair is not easy for PWDs due to lack of supportive infrastructure and the government should come up with laws that compel those in the public transport system to help the disabled.

However, according to the National Road Safety Council under the Ministry of Works and Transport, there is lack of an existent policy towards enabling access for PWDs.

Nathan Tumushabe, the secretary National Road Safety Council, says one of the problems is that the current vehicles like taxis were designed as goods carriers but are now being used as passenger transport, making it hard to accommodate a PWD.

Tumushabe also says that the possibility of incorporating facilities that can enable PWDs have easy access is limited due to the manufacturing design which does not provide space for the wheel chair in instances of crippled persons. To make matters worse, “Matatus normally encroach on the pedestrian walk-ways due to limited road space and same applies to high raised road-side pavements which make it difficult for wheel chairs to roll onto the road,” he says.

The blame, Tumushabe insists, should be taken collectively by every citizen due to limited awareness on needs of the PWDs. He also faults the physical planning authorities that continue to design roads with limited space for the various groups of people.

According to the proposed amendments to the law, Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) should ensure that all goods and products manufactured or imported into the country are to an extent reasonably possible of a universal design, and are designed in such a manner that they can reasonably and easily be modified for the use by persons with disabilities.

“Provisions shall not exclude the manufacture or importation of assistive devices and technologies specifically designed for use by persons with disabilities,” it adds.

But there is hope, with the proposed road Transport Safety Policy and the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) system. Under the policy and the BRT systems, operators will be required to import vehicles that are designed to cater for the needs of PWDs.

Priority should be given

“The now defunct pioneer busses had a provision for PWDs, the same should be adopted for the new public transport system, implying that for any Passenger Service Van (PSV) to be licensed, it must meet all requirements,” says Tumushabe.

John Ndyomugyenyi, the national chairman, Uganda Transport Operators and Drivers Association (UTODA), says that there are some efforts to ensure that the PWDs access the taxis. “Although the current mode of transport does not favour the disabled, the newly constructed taxi park has provisions for PWDs and also, our touts are advised to give them first priority seats behind the driver’s seat,” says Ndyomugyenyi.

According Ndyomugyenyi, the priority seat enables the PWDs to enter and exit the vehicle with ease. He adds that with modern transport systems in modern economies, the transport modes provide special slots for PWDs in terms of space and while boarding and disembarking from the vehicle.

However, when we visited the New Taxi Park, there were no signs of special treatment extended to PWDs in terms of accessing the facility and or even assistance being rendered to them while boarding the vehicles. Brian, as he chose to be identified, is blind and he came walking with his white chain following the voice of a taxi tout shouting “Nansana stage” in the New Taxi Park. Brian had to find his way into the vehicle without any assistance.

“We make it on our own to the park because no one seems to have time for us,” Brain said softly, when asked about how his experience in the taxi park.
Unlike road transport which operates under no policy favouring PWDs, air transport is doing better with regulation by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Sandra Munduru, an air transport officer at the Works ministry, says: “According to Standard and Recommended Practices (SARPs), annex nine talks about facilitation and handling of people with disabilities. In practice, at the airport, we use ambu-lifts. Ambu-lifts are used by ground handling agents to help PWDs disembark from the aircraft into the wheelchairs.
Okeny testifies to this: “I was helped onto the aircraft at Entebbe airport when I was travelling to Romania,” Okeny observed adding that airports have systems that favour PWDs.

Because Uganda has pledged to ensure the rights of PWDs are met, it is upon the government to enforce the laws so that people like Barugahare and Okeny can easily do what everyone else does.

PWDs have a right to access public services

On June 6, 2014, Disability Rights Coalition presented its proposed amendments regarding the Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014 to the Minister of Labour, Gender and Social Development.

Part three of the Memorandum of Understanding, between the rights group suggests many amendments, including : right to education, right to healthcare, access to public services and facilities, affirmative action in favour of persons with disabilities, prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and participation in public life, among others.

The Act defines accessibility as the possibility of a person with a disability to reach a place and manoeuvre within it, use a service, receive information issued by a public place or service, and to participate in the activities provided by a public place or service, on an equal basis with others, with dignity, independence, and safety.

Section 38(1) of the Act states: “Persons with disabilities have a right to access public services, facilities, and public building and not to be discriminated against in exercising this right.”

It adds, under (2): “The facilities referred to in sub-section (1) above include but are not limited to all places of public resort, including health care facilities, public offices, places of worship, recreational and sports facilities, judicial and law enforcement facilities, including police stations and courts of law, public transport facilities, schools and institutions of learning, public roads and pedestrian pathways and walkways.”

Source: The Daily Monitor