The biggest misconception surrounding disabilities is the belief that having a disability equates to inability, says Roselyne Olewe, a leading voice in the fight for the labour rights of persons with disabilities in Kenya.
The mother of three is a disability rights advocate who is passionate about challenging stereotypes and creating an inclusive society for all. She is the program manager for the Global Labour Program at Sightsavers, an organization that works to end avoidable blindness, treat neglected tropical diseases, and advocate for equal opportunities for people with disabilities.
Olewe herself has a hidden disability, a chronic pain disorder called fibromyalgia. Her experiences have only made her more committed to her advocacy work.
People with disabilities often face the detrimental effects of being squeezed into rigid boxes, where their unique identities, talents, and potential are overshadowed or dismissed. This can be incredibly limiting, and it can prevent people with disabilities from reaching their full potential.
According to the World Health Organization, WHO, barriers faced by persons with disabilities go beyond physical obstacles. People with disabilities often face real-life barriers every day. These barriers can prevent them from accessing education, employment, healthcare, and other essential services. They can also make it difficult to participate in social activities and build relationships. These barriers can take many forms, including physically inaccessible infrastructure, negative societal response, unsubstantial policies, or systematic ecosystems that obstruct certain people with some disadvantages because of which they are not able to avail all opportunities and face real-life barriers every day.
WHO estimates that 18% of the world’s population, or one billion people, live with some form of disability. This makes people with disabilities the world’s largest minority. Women and children are among those who experience higher rates of disability. Yet millions of women with disabilities across the world are unable to access healthcare, education, employment, and political conversations.
In some parts of Africa, women with disabilities, particularly those with albinism, are at increased risk of sexual violence, rape, and HIV infection due to the myth that sex with them can cure AIDS. This myth is harmful and false, and it has led to the abuse and exploitation of women with disabilities. In addition to the risk of sexual violence, women with disabilities are also more likely to be targeted by accusations of witchcraft.
Many of these issues boil down to the simple fact of representation and lack of it.
To give voice to and enable equal representation of women with disabilities, Olewe discusses the biggest misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding disabilities, how she works to challenge them, and the impact her program has had in empowering women and girls with disabilities.
What inspired you to fight for the rights of people with disabilities in Kenya?
My first experience in the disability rights space began when I joined Sightsavers nearly two years ago. Prior to that, I had limited exposure to this field. What truly motivated me was Sightsavers‘ vision, as an organization working across more than 30 countries. They strive to end avoidable blindness, provide treatment for neglected tropical diseases, and advocate for equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities. The vision, of ensuring that no one is left behind due to a disability, inspired me greatly. I was motivated because it’s so great to make a difference. And to have a positive impact on the world. At Sightsavers, we often say that a world where there’s no disability discrimination is an equal world worth fighting for. So that’s what motivates me.
What are the biggest misconceptions or stereotypes surrounding disabilities, and how do you work to challenge and change them?
The biggest misconception surrounding disabilities is the belief that having a disability equates to inability. This misconception arises from ableism, which is fueled by a lack of information and personal interactions with individuals with disabilities. Many people mistakenly assume that individuals with disabilities cannot function effectively in various settings such as work environments or educational institutions. However, this notion is entirely untrue. To challenge and change this stereotype, efforts are made to demonstrate that people with disabilities are capable individuals who have the right to work and succeed in their own unique ways. Women with disabilities face double discrimination due to both their gender and disability. Cultural contexts often impose additional barriers, such as women being denied the right to inherit land.
So, maybe I can explain one of the ways that we’re trying to challenge disability discrimination through the program that I manage. The Global Labour Program focuses on empowering women and girls with disabilities. The program is done in partnership with several partners. We have about nine local and international nongovernmental organizations working with us to implement it over a five-year period. The program specifically targets smallholder farmers engaged in contract farming of sorghum, a crop used for brewing beer, animal feed, and as a staple food in many parts of Kenya. Both farmers with and without disabilities are involved in this initiative. Our farmers are growing sorghum in a type of contract farming called out-grower schemes. Under these schemes, the farmers agree to grow sorghum for East African Breweries Limited (EABL), which is a private-sector partner. The farmers are located in three counties in western Kenya: Homa Bay, Migori, and parts of Kisumu.
Interestingly, farmers with disabilities have demonstrated higher productivity in their crop yields, effectively debunking the stereotype that they are less capable. This example showcases that people with disabilities can perform just as well as their non-disabled counterparts.
In addition to the agricultural aspect, the program focuses on gender empowerment. It partners with Coca-Cola Beverages to onboard women with disabilities as retailers within their value chain. These women compete with other micro-entrepreneurs, proving that the stereotype surrounding women with disabilities is unfounded. By providing opportunities and creating an enabling environment, the program aims to empower individuals with disabilities to earn a livelihood and excel in their chosen fields.
Can you provide some examples of the impact your program has made in challenging stereotypes?
Let me share some specific examples.
In the first year of our program, we successfully recruited around 1,101 smallholder sorghum farmers who are now supplying their crops to East African breweries. The quality of their produce is exceptional, thanks to the support provided by our program and our partners. We offer them economic support, business development assistance, access to finance, and linkages with financing partners. As a result, these farmers are running profitable businesses. Our overall target for the full five-year program is to reach 1510 smallholder farmers with disabilities, including 695 farmers with disabilities specifically. Currently, we are at the halfway mark, which is a significant achievement. It’s worth noting that 39% of these farmers are female.
In the first year, which we refer to as Cohort One, we onboarded 98 women with disabilities from Kisumu and Nairobi counties. They are now part of our retailer distribution chain, working as retailers for Coca-Cola. This year we have recruited an additional 114 women with disabilities who are currently undergoing orientation and training for the program. Our goal is to ensure that women and men with disabilities have equal access to economic opportunities within our program.
We have conducted research to address the barriers faced by women with disabilities in participating in commercial sorghum farming. This research focuses on the cultural and social factors that prevent their involvement, such as land ownership and control over resources. By identifying these barriers, we can develop targeted interventions to address them and create a more inclusive environment. So this is one of the ways in which we as Sightsavers are challenging the misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding disabilities by demonstrating these kinds of concepts.
Do you face any challenges in enforcing labor laws in your work with contract farmers? If so, what are these challenges? What kind of legal reforms do you believe are necessary to protect the rights of the farmers?
In Kenya, there are ongoing challenges related to legal reforms, particularly in the context of the Persons with Disabilities Act. The government has recently conducted a review of the act and has encouraged public participation in the process. Organizations like Sightsavers and other global programs have been actively involved in advocacy work and participated in this review. They were able to propose amendments to the provisions of the Persons with Disabilities bill through a memorandum of understanding.
One of the key proposals put forward by these organizations is to ensure that the rights to equality and non-discrimination are adequately addressed. This includes recognizing that the definition of persons with disabilities should encompass various forms of discrimination, not just direct discrimination. Indirect discrimination, which occurs when certain criteria or practices disproportionately impact individuals with specific characteristics associated with disabilities, also needs to be acknowledged. Another important aspect is the denial of reasonable accommodation, where modifications or adjustments are required to create an enabling environment. Including the term “reasonable” within the act would help determine the appropriateness of measures needed to facilitate equal participation of persons with disabilities.
Kenya is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which further emphasizes the rights of individuals with disabilities, including social protection. The area of social protection is something that we are quite interested in as a program, and we’ve been able to engage in influencing by raising awareness around the need to adhere to social protection and enjoyment of rights without discrimination. Some of the things around social protection include ensuring access by persons with disabilities, in particular women and girls with disabilities and older persons to social protection programs and poverty reduction programs.
There are also causes that we have been trying to influence such as engaging with the media through opinion pieces to raise awareness and promote understanding of the importance of social protection and the rights of persons with disabilities without discrimination.
Can you share an example of a personal story or experience that has deeply impacted your advocacy work and fueled your commitment to supporting people with disabilities?
Yeah, actually, I have a hidden disability an unseen disability. I have two conditions. One of them is a chronic pain disorder called fibromyalgia, which flares up from time to time and impacts my energy levels and my health from time to time. I’ve actually had challenges within the medical sector, where one, it took a very long time for diagnosis, because I had so many symptoms, and they just all kept getting diagnosed as something that they were not able to treat.
So it took me quite a long time to get a diagnosis. And I felt that was because there was a lack of awareness. Sometimes even in the medical sector, and my particular condition is treated by a rheumatologist. And Kenya has very few rheumatologists. And those that are, they’re very expensive.
I was fortunate that I have health insurance. But even with my health insurance, last year, my health insurance got exhausted very quickly, because I had so many hospital visits. And that was quite an experience for me. So that has made me much more, I think acutely aware of some of the challenges that people face, especially when they don’t have access to resources. I’m fortunate that I have access to medical insurance, which has really supplemented my ability to seek medical care, seek a treatment plan, and to be able to manage my condition much better.
I’m also fortunate that the organization that I work for, has a very good understanding of all types of disabilities, and is able to make accommodations for me, for example, if I need to work at home because I have mobility issues. Sometimes I have mobility issues, and I’ll get pain in my spine. I’m able to have that conversation with the employer and be able to be accommodated in a way that I’m able to deliver.
But it’s made me acutely aware that not everyone has that benefit. And many people may go without even being diagnosed and may suffer unnecessarily because of that. So that’s my experience. So it’s a disability that is not really seen because I can I can look fine, and be very sick. And no one really knows unless, unless I tell them so I’ve learned to kind of preface but that’s my experience.
Do you work with other organizations?
Yes, very many.
At Sightsavers, our approach involves working through partnerships as a fundamental aspect of our work. We engage in collaborations with a wide range of stakeholders, including government bodies, civil society organizations, and private companies. For instance, we have established partnerships with East Africa Breweries Limited and Coca-Cola. We collaborate with numerous non-governmental organizations, international organizations, and research institutions that specialize in gender-related issues.
What are your goals for the future, and what kind of change do you hope to make?
Whatever goals for the future? Well, maybe I can share with you a campaign that we are running currently. It’s a campaign to encourage people to sign a petition that will make sure world leaders do not leave people with disabilities behind from vital progress at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit in September. So that’s kind of in line with the future goals around a world where persons with disabilities are not left behind. The campaign aligns with the future goals of creating a world where persons with disabilities are not left behind, as the SDG goals have promised to leave no one behind.
But the progress is still off track.
So, those are some of the things that Sightsavers is keen to raise awareness of. The name of that campaign is “Promise in Peril” Because that promise to leave no one behind is in peril if we do not have more world leaders taking the initiative to ensure that persons with disabilities are not left behind, in decision-making, planning, and in participation. So that’s around some of the goals that we have for the future.
What message would you like to convey to society regarding the value and potential of individuals with disabilities?
The biggest message I would like to convey to society is that disability does not equate to inability. There are numerous examples of individuals with disabilities who have become leaders in their respective fields. One particular person who has been a great inspiration to me is Haben Girma. Haben Girma is a remarkable woman who is both deaf and blind. She holds the distinction of being the first deaf and blind graduate of Harvard Law School and has since become a passionate advocate for anti-ableism worldwide.
She had the benefit of growing up in the United States, where she was able to benefit from the rights afforded to people with disabilities. She had access to technology, such as a digital braille device, which she uses to communicate with people despite being deaf and blind. She attended a mainstream high school before going on to higher education and was even admitted to Harvard. This is incredibly inspiring, as she was not born blind and deaf, but lost her sight and hearing early in life. Her story is a powerful reminder that anyone can achieve their dreams, regardless of their circumstances.
So that’s the message I’d like to convey. That disability is not inability.