As legislators wrapped up their latest sitting in Arusha, Tanzania, the East African Legislative Assembly on Tuesday, March 2, granted leave to MP Alex Bahati (Rwanda) to introduce a private member’s Bill that will go a long way in protecting the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs) in the six-member regional bloc. Bahatis motion, seconded by MP Muhia Wanjiku (Kenya), was unanimously welcomed by lawmakers who robustly made a case for the need to ensure that all partner states have a uniform and well implemented policy that ensures that persons with disabilities are well catered for. While justifying his legislation dubbed ‘The East African Community Persons With Disabilities Bill, 2022,’ Bahati told the House that: “Persons with disabilities, generally, are vulnerable by virtue of their impairment and negative societal attitudes which arise from fear, ignorance, superstitions, neglect and lack of awareness. “As a result, persons with disabilities have inadequate access to services, information, resources as well as limited participation in the socio-economic development process. Consequently, the majority depend on their families and communities for survival. Nevertheless, persons with disabilities are often of low priority in society. They receive less education, skills training and medical attention, which reduces their employment opportunity which even result in secondary disabilities and sometimes early death.” Consequently, the former construction entrepreneur who was elected to the regional Assembly five years ago to represent interests of PWDs, explained that this discrimination and neglect erodes their self- esteem and confidence to the extent that, they cannot voice their needs. Wanjuki who has a daughter with disability hopes this Bill will see light before the fourth EALA’s term ends in December. Not afraid to move around with my child Noting that most often, society pays more attention to other things and has little or no time for persons with disabilities, she was emphatic on three major things – the education system in Africa that is wanting, lack of public sensitization, and policies and other instruments that are in place but of no use since they are not implemented. With regards to education systems, she noted that many parents and children are suffering because their are no appropriate policies to cater for children with autism, a serious developmental disorder impacting the nervous system which impairs the ability to communicate and interact, dyslexia, a learning disorder characterised by difficulty reading that occurs in children with normal vision and intelligence, and other serious ailments. Most children with dyslexia succeed in school with tutoring or a specialised education programme. With Autism, early recognition, as well as behavioural, educational and family therapies may reduce symptoms and support development and learning. Wanjiku said education systems and policies should ensure education is open to all and not only people without disabilities. On the issue of sensitization, she underscored that most often parents with children with disabilities hide them because they are not sensitised. She said: “They feel shy. You know in our African culture sometimes families may feel like it is a sad omen to have this child. I am a parent with a child with disability, particularly dyslexia, and I am not afraid to move around with my child. If parents are sensitised they cannot hide their children. “You may realise that these children could have better talent than some of us; where they do extremely well in areas where the government and policies can support them.” MP Ann Leonardo Itto (South Sudan) who comes from a family with three people with disabilities observed that, often, such families don’t know how to care for their own. “Their rights are being violated and it’s very wrong. In a way, we have failed them,” Itto said, also pointing to the fact that the entire EAC Headquarters building where EALA is located has no space and infrastructure to accommodate the access and comfort of people with disabilities. Like most other lawmakers who seconded Bahati’s motion, Wanjiku stressed that people with disabilities are living human beings who should be acknowledged and their matter handled with great concern so that society can move together. “Today, we are well but I have long learned that anyone is a potential people with disabilities candidate. So, we need to look at this subject very seriously. We need to encourage the governments, the policy makers, but more so, the implementers,” Wanjiku said. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than one billion people live with some form of disability. The UN health agency notes that almost everyone is likely to experience some form of disability – temporary or permanent – at some point in life. MP Oda Gasinzigwa (Rwanda) noted that they will have to seriously consider issues pertaining to the socio-economic empowerment of people with disabilities. This, she noted, calls for curtailing employment discrimination, and stigmatisation of people with disabilities. Bahati replaced James Ndahiro in EALA five years ago. In 2015, the latter introduced the Bill and it was passed by the Assembly. But it was never assented to by all partner states. It was returned to the House in 2017 with comments and reservations from Kenya but lawmakers were unable to reconsider issues before the mandate of the third EALA expired mid that year. Ndahiro, a seasoned economist, on Thursday told The New Times that: “Let’s hope for the best. The Bill is long overdue because it was supposed to link pertinent development discussions in EAC and ensure people with disabilities interests are represented in a better and well coordinated manner in the region.” Ndahiro is happy the third EALA initiated the creation of national councils of PWDs which were set up in partner states. “All was not lost but if the law is put in place it will be a useful tool. Among other things, you cannot fight poverty among people with disabilities if they are not on board and are coordinated because in some instances they are not even aware of their needs. Regional coordination is important because they get the opportunity to learn from each other,” Ndahiro said. Globally, and locally, there are PWD instruments that were initiated and ratified by almost all partner states. They include UN Resolution 61/196 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the EAC Treaty as well as the bloc’s Common Market Protocol. In May 2021, Rwanda adopted a national policy to help ensure that people with disabilities enjoy full inclusion in society and equal participation in the country’s transformation agenda but experts say that though this was a milestone, it is not enough. Stakeholders in Rwanda have pushed for the review of the 2007 law relating to the protection of people with disabilities. Speaking on behalf of the EAC Council of Ministers, Rebecca Kadaga, Ugandas first deputy Prime Minister and Minister for EAC Affairs, noted that she will take matters to the next Council meeting. Kadaga noted that the Council will address the expedition of the Bill urgently because all partner states are “already committed internationally.” Bahati told The New Times that he wants to table the Bill, for the first reading, in June.