Harare (New Ziana) – Although the government, partnered by various non-governmental organisations, has done much in recent years to assist people living with disabilities, their situation still requires a lot more attention.
Progress in addressing their plight has been retarded, to some degree, by the harsh economic environment that has obtained in the country for years, largely due to western sanctions.
Most common disabilities in Zimbabwe are physical and visual impairment, hard of hearing (those who hear with difficulty), deaf, mental challenges and albinism.
The government made easing the plight of people living with disabilities a top priority, and created several official avenues in high places, such as the office of Presidential Advisor on Disability, to ensure that matters relating to disability get immediate, and regular attention by authorities.
There is, too, special representation in Parliament specially created for members of the disabled community to advance their interests legislatively, where such a need arises.
But, like even for the able bodied, there are always gaps in the provision of safety nets for the disabled, whether in the form of empowerment programmes and projects, or subsidies.
Unlike the former, members of the disabled community feel the impact of such gaps more keenly due to the limitations imposed by their conditions.
Ropafadzo Munodzana of Epworth, a peri-urban settlement just outside Harare, the capital, was born with visual impairment. She survives on selling airtime in front of a leading supermarket store in Harare’s Central Business District.
She sat for her Ordinary Level Examinations in 2003 and passed five subjects, excluding English Language.
All her efforts to supplement the subject were in vain as she failed to raise enough money to re-sit for the subject.
Munodzana later married a man who also had visual impairment. Ever since, they have been surviving on airtime street vending, and getting a paltry income just to get by.
One day, while her husband was touting for clients, someone emerged from ‘nowhere’ and snatched his airtime vouchers and took to his heels, taking advantage of his disability. However, with the help of some good Samaritans, the suspect was apprehended.
As if that was not enough, Munodzana also met a similar fate after someone bought airtime using a fake US$100 note, again taking advantage of her disability challenge.
The couple’s separate predicaments at the hands of heartless members of society are not isolated cases as many other people with disabilities are finding it difficult to eke out a leaving due to their unfortunate conditions, which society sometimes takes advantage of.
This came out strongly at a Equal World Campaign workshop in Harare, convened by Sightsavers and Poverty Reduction Forum Trust.
The meeting focused on the agenda for the 2023 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Summit for Persons with Disability (PWDs) to be held between 18 and 19 September this year in New York, USA, where, world leaders will gather at the United Nations Headquarters to reaffirm their collective commitments on the Goals and the promise to leave no one behind.
The Summit will be a battle cry to urgently put the world back on track to achieving the SDGs.
In Zimbabwe, 9.2 percent of the total population of 15 million people have disabilities according to the 2022 National Population Census.
Section 83 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe deals with the rights of persons with disabilities. The section clearly notes that the State must take appropriate measures, within the limits of the resources available to it, to ensure that persons with disabilities realize their full mental and physical potential.
But issues of discrimination and stigmatization came out at the workshop as key challenges faced by members of the community of disabled people.
Public infrastructure and services such as transport, were widely cited as often not user-friendly to people living with disabilities, where policy change is urgently needed.
Although the National Budget allocates money to fund the public transport sector to enable people living with disabilities to access buses for free, this is hardly the case on the ground.
In the area of health care, the story is the same. Although they are supposed to get free medical care in government institutions, this is seldom available.
“Those suffering from epilepsy, for example, are supposed to get free medication at government hospitals, but when they go there, they are told there is no medication, at the same time they cannot afford high prices in pharmacies, condemning them to more suffering,” said Tapiwa Bvuma of the Zimbabwe Parents of Handicapped Children Association.
Bvuma also noted that, quite often, children born with disabilities are not given the opportunity to go to school, and chances are that they will die poor due to lack of education and life supporting skills.
However, there are a number of educational institutions catering for children with disabilities. One such institution is Deaf College Africa run by Deaf Zimbabwe Trust. Others are St Giles in Milton Park, St Catherine in Harare, Emerald Hill School (catering exclusively for the deaf), Danhiko and Tinokwirira in Mabvuku- all in Harare. King George V1 in Bulawayo, is another such educational institution, among others.
Paida Chimhini, Deaf Zimbabwe Trust programmes manager, however, bemoaned lack of adequate appropriate teaching aids and assistive technologies to support effective teaching and learning.
“Children with disabilities often come from poor backgrounds and cannot afford to pay school fees. They also have extra costs associated with their disability challenges that must be incurred,” she said.
But she noted that some of the schools do not have qualified personnel.
The institutions need teachers trained to handle learners with special needs, especially sign language.
Rejoice Gadzai, who uses a wheelchair, narrated her ordeal saying when she fell sick sometime last year, she faced difficulties as all the institutions, including clinics and social welfare offices, were inaccessible since her wheelchair could not fit on their doors and entry points.
“I had to be attended to by the nurses in public which compromised my privacy and dignity,” she said.
National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped programmes assistant, Mutsa Mhlanga, said: “When people with disabilities choose to work on pavements or streets to eke out a living, they are chased away by local authorities. When they decide to formalize their activities, the charges are too steep for them, thereby shutting them out.”
Mhlanga was also concerned by the lack of statistics on people with disabilities. Most parents living with such children conceal them, especially during national census.
This affects national development and assistance planning for disabled people as without statistics, nothing much can be done or organised in a systematic way.
Charity Mugawa from the Epilepsy Support Foundation was worried about the meagre US$20 disability grants paid to families of people with disabilities.
“US20 per household under the current economic environment is not enough. With the US$20 per household, they are excluding those
households with more than one person with disability because there are cases where a whole family is made up of people with disabilities only,” she said.
She also noted that not many people with disabilities had benefited from the land reform programme, the biggest economic empowerment drive the government has carried out.
In her view, the representation of people living with disabilities in Parliament should also be increased.
“We have two senators who represent people with disabilities. Why don’t we have representatives of people with disabilities in the lower House of Assembly?” she asked.
Christine Peta, the director of Disability Affairs in the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, said most of the issues raised were already contained in the Disability Policy document.
She, however, said that it was too late now to include persons with disabilities in various quotas in Parliament as this required the amendment of the law, which takes time due to a lot of stakeholder onsultations required to implement or amend government policy/programs.