By Henry Awino
Disability inclusion remains a key priority area in Kenya’s national government agenda.
This is captured under Article 54 (2) of Kenya’s constitution, which expresses that the state shall ensure the progressive implementation of the principle that at least 5% of members of the public in elective and appointive bodies are Persons with Disabilities (PWDs).
Similarly, Kenya’s Vision 2030 strategy envisages a nation where all women and men enjoy high quality life and equity.
Likewise, there are ongoing discussions around and calls for a more robust and inclusive policy and legal framework through systematic legislative reform to foster the active participation of all citizens, including groups such as women, youth and persons with disabilities who are traditionally under-represented in political and economic decision making.
Meaningful public consultation and participation strengthens the quality, relevance and responsiveness of policy and legislation, and in turn, prospects for democracy and good governance.
As for democracy and disability inclusion, these are very much intertwined and mutually inclusive subjects.
Kenya has made remarkable democratic gains since the enactment of the 2010 constitution, for example promoting multi-party politics.
Kenya joined the world in commemorating this year’s (2021) international day for democracy – as usual on the 15th September – and it was evident that democracy still stands out as the best form of government in human history.
Globalization of democratic ideals and practices such as public participation and regular elections is greater today in Africa than at any other point in time.
This has brought about better peace, stability, and development in the region.
What is democracy and the relation to disability inclusion?
Many scholars today opine that democracy is a political system in which individual and group rights and liberties are well protected, and in which there exist sovereign spheres of civil society and private life, shielded from state control.
Democracy can be inferred from this definition therefore as a government in which the supreme power is vested in the citizenry and exercised by them directly or indirectly through their elected representatives.
Robust political parties, as vehicles for capturing and controlling power, together with active participation in political processes by all groups therefore becomes a fundamental aspect of democratic governance.
Alongside this is the rule of law, social inclusion and respect for human rights aimed at eliminating marginalisation and discrimination.
Disability on the other side is a complex issue which may be difficult to define conclusively.
Many theoretical models exist that attempt to unpack what exactly is disability.
Perhaps the most used definition is per the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
The UNCRPD defines persons with disabilities as those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments, which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.
Disability according to the Kenya Constitution and the Persons with Disabilities Act, 2003 (under review) means physical, sensory, mental, or other impairment, including any visual, hearing, learning or physical incapability, which impacts adversely on social, economic, or environmental participation.
Although official statistics show that 2.2% of the Kenyan population comprise of PWDs, it is widely believed by disability advocates (Development Initiatives Report), that the true figures are much higher.
Despite this, according to the 2019 population and housing census, the number of those who hold leadership positions within political parties remains significantly low.
This exclusion has been particularly acute in the areas of political representation in elective and appointed positions, with limited efforts by political parties to provide a conducive environment for persons with disabilities to engage in politics.
Even when no legal limitations exist, other obstacles such as prejudices and stigma, physical and communication inaccessibility, and the lack of supported decision-making policies and mechanisms, make the exercise of these rights very difficult.
These barriers are exacerbated among historically marginalized groups – for example, women and youth with disabilities.
In the Kenyan political context, disability is viewed from a charity model.
This model focuses on the individual and tends to view people with disabilities as passive victims ‒ objects of pity who need care, and whose impairment is their main identifier.
Efforts led by disability inclusion civil society organisations, activists and organisations like Westminster Foundation for Democracy aim to shift broader perceptions and responses to PWDs.
This work is centred around the social model which emphasises change of attitudes, practices, and policies to remove barriers for meaningful participation by PWDs.
This is the most pragmatic approach to disability inclusion since it embodies the principle of nothing for us without us i.e., active engagement of all citizens particularly the core group/individuals.
Why are disability inclusion issues important?
Building inclusive and vibrant democracies depends on the active engagement of all citizens in public life and political processes.
Historically, many persons with disabilities in Kenya have been excluded from exercising their human rights, including the right to political participation.
It is important to note that disability rights are basic human rights, not special rights.
Persons with disabilities have the same rights as all other people to non-discrimination, political participation and representation, access, equality of opportunity, inclusion, and full participation in society as enshrined in the constitution under Article 10 (2b) on national values and principles of governance, Article 27 on equality and freedom from discrimination, and Article 54 on the explicit rights for persons with disabilities.
These are the basic principles underlying the UNCRPD, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Yet the rights of disabled people are often violated due to prejudice and discrimination.
Equal opportunity to leadership positions and genuine participation of all citizens in political processes is a cornerstone of democracy.
Leadership and political participation for all are clearly rooted in the UDHR and the ICCPR, which mentions the right of every person to equal participation in public affairs, the right to vote and to be elected, and the right to access public service.
Article 29 of the CRPD calls state parties to ensure persons with disabilities can effectively, fully participate in political and public life on equal basis with others.
Even in the most difficult elections situations, the rights of disabled citizens can be recognized.
This is a vital aspect of addressing exclusion and inequality, and to promoting the Leave No One Behind agenda under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
One important part of democracy building is ensuring that all citizens have equal chance to participate in the electoral process as voters or as candidates for the elections.
Voting is one way through which individuals may exercise their voice.
But participation in electoral processes is more than just voting, it includes the ability to take part in the conduct of public affairs, the opportunity to register as a candidate, to campaign, to be elected and to hold office at all levels of government.
For PWDs in Kenya this can only be made possible if political parties embrace greater inclusion.
Political parties should ensure that they respond to the strategic and practical needs of PWDs in their internal party documents, structures, policies and in the contestation for elections.
The media and state actors such as the Independent Electoral and Boundary Commission (IEBC), the Office of the Register of Political Parties (ORPP) and the Political Parties Liaison Committee (PPLC) also have greater responsibility in promoting disability inclusion in political processes.
What needs to change and how?
Kenya is heading for a general election in August 2022. With the vote not so far away, research shows that persons with disabilities in Kenyan political parties face systemic exclusion.
Political parties to a large extent still have a cultural and societal disregard for disability inclusion issues.
This presents a big challenge with respect to promoting the democratic gains.
To strengthen multi-party democracy in Kenya by means of inclusive participation and representation of persons with disabilities in political parties and processes,Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), in partnership with Demo Finland, for example, have been working with 12 political parties and 15 disabled persons’ organizations (DPOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) in Kenya – through the Kenya Inclusive Political Parties Programme (KIPP).
The goal of this programme being to promote disability inclusion in politics by ensuring that effective provisions that respond to the strategic and practical needs of PWDs are in place, and that PWDs are equipped and supported to contest in elections.
Practical activities such as research studies, mainstreaming of parties’ manifestos and constitutions, sensitization trainings, dialogue with the key state actors and media, mentorships to PWDs aspirants, and bilateral and cross-party engagements has been undertaken under the programme to address the existing knowledge and practice gaps identified by WFD through a baseline survey on the state of inclusion of persons with disabilities in political parties.
This has seen more parties across the political spectrum, consciously providing persons with disabilities opportunities to occupy key leadership positions.
For example, Justice and Freedom Party (JFP), Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), Amani National Congress (ANC), Kenya National Union (KANU) and Green Congress Party (GCK) have all included persons with disabilities within their National Executive Councils – a key decision-making organ within the parties.
The parties are also setting up internal technical committees to review their constitutions, manifestos, policies, systems, and structures to align them to the inclusion agenda.
More formal engagements between the parties, CSOs and DPOs as a resource to PWDs political inclusion are continuously taking place.
These demonstrate the willingness of political parties to foster greater inclusion, something which needs to be scaled up to further strengthen democracy in the country.
Besides political parties, the role of media and state institutions is also critical.
The media is critical in ensuring that the public has accurate information about key policy developments and in holding the government accountable to its obligations.
During an election cycle, the role of the media becomes even more integral.
However, inclusion for persons with disabilities in political processes is often left out from the media agenda.
Ensuring that PWDs are seen regularly in the media and are sources of news and analysis on topical issues will help to change the public image of disability.
The angling of issues related to disability should not be from the perspective of pity or awe, but rather from a recognition that persons with disabilities possess their own agency and individuality.
Persons with disabilities also have views about poverty, governance, leadership, the environment, and public service.
They should not be viewed as only interested in disability issues by the media.
The critical role of IEBC cannot be refuted. Persons with disabilities would benefit from the commission’s assertion of more authority in the oversight of party lists’ submissions – both for election nomination and nomination into Parliament and County Assemblies.
The commission could also ensure that electoral materials, such as electoral agents’ and observers’ manuals, voter education, and information on political party and candidates are disability friendly.
For example, in selecting voter registration and polling stations, IEBC should envision having level access from outside the polling station all the way to the polling booth itself.
This may include temporary and/or permanent ramps to ensure easy access.
The polling booth should also be at table height, reachable by someone using a wheelchair.
IEBC should consider the use of tactile ballot papers for the blind or to develop a ballot guide to help a blind voter independently mark the ballot and/or to employ the use of a cassette tape as a supplementary guide.
Election violence and/or intimidation is a widespread phenomenon in Kenya politics.
It is made worse during political parties’ primaries and in the hearing and determination of party election disputes.
Resulting violence and intimidation disproportionately affects persons with disabilities due to the existing vulnerabilities as compared to other groups.
It is important that IEBC strictly enforce the election laws against violence and intimidation to protect the rights of persons with disabilities towards promoting inclusion in political processes.
In line with the constitution, vision 2030 and SDGs, Kenya envisions a democratic political system that is issue based, people-centered, result-oriented, and accountable to the public.
The ORPP should enforce compliance to regulations of political parties for a credible democratic multiparty system.
This can be realized through continuous training and capacity building of political parties’ officials (Party Leaders, Secretary Generals, Chairpersons of disability leagues, Women leaders, Youth leaders etc.).
Strengthening the Political Parties Liaison Committee tripartite dialogue forum is equally fundamental to ensure positive coexistence and harmony between the ORPP, IEBC and political parties for citizens to trust the democratic process.
A vibrant, active and an all (disability) inclusive political system is therefore critical in institutionalizing democracy in the country.
Political parties need to be strengthened to ensure inclusivity and to empower persons with disabilities, women, and youth to fully participate in the political and electoral processes for a sustainable democracy.
Feature Imag Courtesy: Alexandre Saraiva Carniato